In Defense of Tablets
The tablet is doomed. It was a fad. Who needs one, anyway?
At least that’s the conventional wisdom forming around the iPad and other tablets in the wake of some recent negative sales news. Apple’s iPad sales have been down in the last couple of quarters. Samsung says demand for its tablets has grown “sluggish.” Microsoft’s Surface tablet line has failed to take off.
The CEO of Best Buy told me in an interview last month that tablet sales were “crashing.”
Maybe so. The recent sales troubles for big-name tablets are undeniable. But I think the conclusions that are being drawn from them are wrong.
I think the tablet is a terrific device.
I believe that tablets — and especially the iPad — are extremely versatile and productive tools for consumers, schools and businesses, and are better for many tasks than the PC or the smartphone. I use my iPad many times a day, and it has cut my use of my laptop by more than half.
In a brief interview about tablets I had this week with Apple CEO Tim Cook, he said, “We couldn’t be happier with how we’ve done with the first four years of the iPad,” and added that, “I’d call what’s going on recently a speed bump, and I’ve seen that in every category.”
How you feel about the modern, multitouch tablet depends a lot on what you think Steve Jobs and company set out to do with the iPad back in 2010. If you believe he was out to make a bigger smartphone, or to entirely replace the Mac and PC, you’re wrong.
Using his characteristic slides at the iPad’s introduction, Jobs very clearly positioned his new tablet as a third, complementary category of device that could do some things better than the iPhone or Mac, but not everything.
I believed then, and now, that the success of the iPad depended not on whether it would wholly replace the laptop, but on whether it could be the best, or most convenient, computer in enough common scenarios for which the laptop (and, to a lesser extent, the smartphone) had been the go-to choice.
When I first reviewed the iPad, I wrote that, to succeed, “It will have to prove that it really can replace the laptop or netbook for enough common tasks, enough of the time, to make it a viable alternative.”
For me, and for many, many others, the tablet passes this bar. And the results in the marketplace have been impressive, especially considering that the iPad was introduced only four years ago. Since then, Apple has sold 225 million of them, despite its famous premium pricing. And total tablet sales are, by some estimates, approaching half a billion units.
According to respected venture capitalist and analyst Mary Meeker, in her annual Internet trends report presented at our Code Conference in May, tablet sales have exploded in a way that PC sales — including sales of cheap netbooks — never did.
What’s more, Meeker said, tablets have lots of growth ahead of them.
To get a sense of how big the iPad alone has become in just four years, check out this chart by Slate.com. It shows that, in Apple’s last fiscal quarter — a quarter in which iPad sales declined — the tablet (not all of Apple) still brought in nearly $6 billion in revenue, an amount exceeding the quarterly revenues of Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Groupon and Tesla combined.
I can’t explain the recent sales plateau. Some speculate that tablet replacement cycles are closer to those of PCs than of smartphones — perhaps three to four years versus two to three years for phones, and four to six years for laptops. So, after an epic explosion of sales since 2010, tablet owners are content to stand pat for awhile, and new customers will trickle in more slowly, because the early blistering rate of growth isn’t sustainable.
Others suggest that, for many people, the rise of large-screen smartphones with five-inch screens or larger — soon to be joined by Apple itself, according to rumors — has sapped some of the desire for tablets.
Optimists, like Tim Cook, have said publicly that there’s plenty of room for tablet growth in emerging markets, where most people never had PCs, and in corporations, where tablet business apps are too few.
But what I can explain is the appeal and value of tablets, and especially the iPad, which has at least two big advantages over its rivals: Longer battery life (over 12 hours, in my tests) and a much greater selection of apps that have been optimized for tablet use — around 350,000, as of today.
Whether I want to check business or personal email, respond to a message, browse the Web, check the news or watch a video, I find it quicker and more satisfying to do on a slender iPad Air than even on the best laptop on the market, the MacBook Air.
If I need to edit or annotate or review a document, I also find that easy on a tablet, especially now that a brilliant new truly touch-based version of Microsoft Office has been released for the iPad. (But not, ironically, for Microsoft’s own tablets.)
Of course, I do some of these things on my laptop, some of the time, and some on my smartphones, as well. The laptop’s roomy keyboard and multiple windows are a big plus over the iPad. But the laptop weighs three times as much to carry, and is much less convenient on airplanes.
As for the phone, even the larger-screen models have much less screen real estate, and phone apps tend to show things in lists instead of in side-by-side panels, as is typical on the iPad. That requires a lot more taps and swipes. So I do these tasks on the phone only when I have little time or space.
Maybe I’m atypical in my use of the iPad. For one thing, I care less than many folks do about the iPad’s greatest weakness — its lack of a light, thin, Apple-built keyboard. I’d buy that in a minute if they made it. I freely admit that, like most tablet users, I wouldn’t often choose to write a hefty article like this one using only an onscreen keyboard. But I’m okay with typing most things on glass.
Nobody knows for sure where tablet sales are heading. But with the right apps and usage scenarios, a tablet can be a very good computer.