Steve Jobs introducing the iPad

Steve Jobs introducing the iPad

Commentary


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.

Many commentators, like this one, argue that the tablet boom is over, and that their makers are out of ideas. Others say the tablet was supposed to replace the PC, but has failed to do so.

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.

Tablet Sales Have Grown Faster Than PCs Ever Did

Mary Meeker, Kleiner Perkins Tablet Sales Have Grown Faster Than PCs Ever 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.

iPad Sales Remain Large

Slate.com iPad Sales Remain Large

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.




18 comments
Impaler
Impaler

I agree with Walt's comments.  I have an iPad 3rd generation, iPhone 5s, mid-2011 MacBook Air, iMac, and PeeCee at work.  I usually reach for the iPad, although it's satisfying to do work on the MacBook.  More often than not, I wish I had a smaller iPad mini to do day to day tasks.  Awaiting the fall event(s) to see how it all shapes up.  TouchID on an iPad would be sweet - although I must admit my iPad 3 is still humming along just fine.

Bahmani
Bahmani

I actually like the iPad's keyboard a lot. I especially like the autocorrect features which I find less annoying and interruptive, and more lang the lines of forcing me to not be so sloppy. Occasionally autocorrect suggests a better word than I initially wrote!


90% of what we do on a PC, laptop or desktop, is writing emails, or crafting documents (usually in Word), or browsing the web for information to use in our emails or insert int our documents (usually in Word).


Anyone who needs Autocad is excused from the tablet world.


Same goes for professional video editing and music production. 


Although the iPad can come very close. I've built some garageband songs on my iPad that people think are real songs by a real musician. I guess that makes me a real musician.


Or at least, the iPad made me that.


As a general professional office tool however, all you need is wireless printing, which comes with every smallest printer these days, and you are pretty much on your way.


If you run an application that needs a desktop, you are a small minority of worker that is getting smaller and smaller.


I think the iPad is here to stay, once people realize it isn't just a really big iPhone you watch Netflix on.

Hopbell
Hopbell

On my laptop I use Dragon Dictate heavily with a lot of success. I'm waiting for Dictate to evolve on the mobile devices so I can greatly reduce the need for a keyboard. 

Karlme
Karlme

I too have been a huge tablet fan since day one of the iPad. I agree that the form factor is often the one I want to use. Three years ago I commented on my social media sites that Apple should extend the use of the iPad by including mouse or touch-pad support to the device allowing casual users of computing the ability to hook up to a large screen and use the iPad as a laptop replacement. Recently I bought the Surface Pro 3. It has become my notebook and iPad replacement. While i miss a few of the iPad apps dearly due to the lack of apps for Modern UI, the combination of Windows 7 support and the apps that are available for Modern UI still outweighs using two devices. Again, I urge Apple to look at creating a single device that allows for both laptop and tablet use. My current environment is a Samsung Note 3 and the Surface Pro 3 and that combination allows me to do all my computing while on the go or hooked up to a large screen at home or at the office.  

Nargg
Nargg

The graph seems to be wrong to me.  I'd either show laptops only, or combine laptops and desktops.  Showing them separately seems to try to give tablets more worth than they should have.  Plus how are the new "laplets" in this comparison?  Devices from makers like Microsoft, Dell and Lenovo that cross the lines between laptops and tablets probably are a big dent in overall tablet sales.  I seem to see a lot of folks in the conventions I go to moving to these much more capable devices. 

sheik yerbutti
sheik yerbutti

Walt, you're right -- I still have my iPad2 & will only upgrade if Apple enlarges the screen. My laptop is just for printing financial documents.

JefinLondon
JefinLondon

The sales 'speed bump' (he'd say that now wouldn't he?) is caused by all the factors Walt. Replacement cycles are more like laptops than like phones and the device remains sub-optimal for some use cases. 


So for me, for example, sure I use my tablets (iOS and Android) but more often than not when I travel I need my laptop so it seems silly to bring the third device along as well so it stays at home. 


Lovely device, fresh important new category but it's not a laptop killer for everyone. At least not yet.

SteveMahoney
SteveMahoney

Well.  Walt is right and most of the folks posting.


Walt: The External Keyboard that Apple makes works well under IoS 7.  Try it out.  Tricky to use with BlueTooth in a mobile mode since the keyboard can turn ON an iPhone or iPad if the keys get hit in transport.  So, under IoS8, it's simpler to TURN off stuff but a gap in the Apple Ecosystem.


I use the iPad as a modified desktop with the external keyword.  Given MS-Office, takes care of 90% of my needs.  I drop into a MacBook Air for Speed stuff and any more intense browser activities that ONLY work on the Safari Air and not the IoS Safari.


So...the real value comes from the ability to switch into JUST using the iPad when I don't need to do a lot of keyboarding.


The ability to use the new AirStand allows an iPad to be put at the proper angles and be held solidly at almost any angle.  Sort of like looking at the Lamp from Pixar given the flexibility of viewing options.  Ships: 10.10.14.  


Given the iPad a shot as an ALTERNATE Desktop.  Toss in the Wireless keyboard and a stand for the iPad and you should be good for about 80 - 90% of your business and personal needs.


9.9.14 - Right.  Walt.  If no, then 10.10.14 will be impacted. ;)

obarth
obarth

I've been getting people around me on tablets. They love the ease of use and portability. The issues are:

1- Ergonomics still. While not as bad as on PCs, touch introduces issues for old people (lack of haptic feedback...) and Mobile UIs are not terribly "discoverable": no hint when/which direction you should scroll...

2- Missing apps. There's always one missing app. My teacher sister has to use a couple of windows-only monstrosities, my mom wants to play French Scrabble vs the PC, my dad does genealogy on a Windows/Mc-only app...

3- Storage. Local storage is too limited, even on Android tablets with SD cards, moreso on iOS devices with their caviar-priced Flash prices... docking to a HD is expensive and impratical; working off a LAN storage requires a server, working off the cloud means no connexion = no work done...

4- While laptop and desktop docking setups exist (mostly Asus and Samsung, respectively), they're far from mainstream, and a bit on the expensive side... One you get into laptop-pric territory, why not a laptop instead ?

msheff
msheff

I use my iPad for most everything except making presentations ( though I present with it and edit keynote on it) and heavy writing. Other than that it is my "go to" device. It has a definite place in the market between the phone and laptop, just what it was designed for.

I think decreasing sales are likely due to longer upgrading times. I expect sales will continue to grow due to greater acceptance in enterprise. The pace of growth will just be slower. The market rapidly filled but will continue to expand as better apps and software come forward. I'm excited for the future of the tablet, and the iPad in particular, as it fills the void it was supposed to fill quite nicely.

Mohammad Ridwan
Mohammad Ridwan

 iPads are fantastic. But here's what need to happed to revive seemingly declining market.


1. More OPTIMIZED OS. Currently it's just a glorified stretched up Phone OS.

2. TRUE multitasking. Side by side apps + floating apps.

3. Better support for pen/stylus. For students. Currently most stylus have tip as large as finger tips. Not a pleasant experience. They need to have a lower cost stylus that students can use.

4. Anti-reflective coating.. again for students as well as general consumers.

stsk
stsk

Good one Walt. The authors to whose articles you linked in your first paragraph have something in common (other than being idiots) - Peter "Half" Bright covers Microsoft. Bilimoria worked as a product manager for - you guessed it - Microsoft. Neither have any connection to Apple analysis, other than having their asses kicked by their products. Microsoft pioneered missing the entire point of tablets much more than a decade before the iPad, and they have steadfastly never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity in that arena. Why should we expect better from either MS or these two clowns now? The iPad had the fastest adoption rate of any electronic device in history. Taking a breather is inevitable.

KenG
KenG

What reason does the average person have for upgrading any tablet bought in the last 3 years?  Since they usually aren't tied to contracts like phones are, there is no reason to upgrade them, as the newer devices don't really have many advantages.


In fact, there really isn't much reason to upgrade most smartphones bought in the last 2 years.  However, because the two largest carriers still charge you for a phone even if you don't upgrade, people still regularly get new phones.  If bundling phones with service was illegal (like it has been with landlines for over 30 years), the upgrade cycle for phones would be much longer, and prices would be lower (there would be real competition).  The carriers mask the true cost of phones with their contracts, as most people have no idea that they are still paying for phones even after they have paid off the carrier's "subsidy".


I like gadgets as much as the next guy (okay, well, maybe a little more), but I have a hard time justifying upgrading anything I bought in the past 18 months.  That kind of thinking is more responsible for declines in sales of tablets than anything else.

msingersfo
msingersfo

Thank you for this post, Walt.

I could not agree more that the best days of the tablet are ahead of it. We have only begun to scratch the surface of tablet use in the workplace. Sales, government and education are all aggressive adopters. Any replacement cycle lag in the consumer market will soon be refreshed by new capabilities and designs. Those who scoff at the premature demise of the tablet fail to see its potential as a creation device.

SteveMahoney
SteveMahoney

Oh yeah, the AirStand is a Grab-n-Go Design meaning you can Literally grab the iPad off the desk and take it with you in a very secure X-frame casing with the proper grips, etc. - Sort of like a GoPro effect given the modular add-ons. Pretty cool stuff.  I helped with the Product Management for the Client.

Nargg
Nargg

@obarth  You and your "people" around you should try out some of the newer devices from MS, Dell and Lenovo that mix a laptop into a tablet (with docking station in some cases) extremely well.  The ergo issues are easily fixed with these as they lap just as well and holding and docking.  And missing apps?  Really?  In today's world if you can't find an app on any platform that will work then you are using the wrong app.  And finally storage?  Many of the newer devices I talked about are reaching up to 512 Gig, plus SD card too.  Add to that they all have USB ports, and some have crazy good cloud based services handy, storage is no longer an issue.  Finally, it's all about 1. portability and 2. the ultimate swiss army knife.  Normal tablets don't meet both, the newer convertible machines do.  In more ways than just these 2.

obarth
obarth

@Mohammad Ridwan  You're describing the Samsung Galaxy Note, except the anti-reflective screen which I think cannot be done for touchscreens right now.

Matchstick
Matchstick

@KenG  That's my feeling as well.  I'm a techhead and I get a new iPhone every year due to my ever so generous wife giving me her yearly upgrade in exchange for my old phone.  But I've got an iPad 3 and it still runs just fine, screen looks as good as ever and the battery still holds a great charge two and a half years later, I just don't see laying out $500 to replace it.

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