With another quarter of
falling iPad sales, there’s a lot of talk these days about
what’s up with the iPad. While Apple still sells more than
twice as many iPads per quarter as it does Macs, the Mac
business generates more revenue and is more stable than the
iPad, which has shown year-over-year sales declines for 14 of
Apple’s latest 15 financial quarters.
Despite a larger installed base than the Mac,
customer-satisfaction scores that are “through the roof” (to
use Tim Cook’s phrase), dominance in the high-end tablet
market, and increasing sales to first-time
iPad buyers, the iPad’s lack of sales momentum leads to a lot
of skepticism about its future.
I believe that the iPad, or something very much like it, will
be a huge part of the future of how people use computing
devices. Here are a few of the reasons why.
The current iPad market is messy
This is an old argument so I won’t belabor it: People got
really excited about the iPad in its early days, with the most
overheated period happening between the 2012 and 2013 holiday
seasons. In that 15-month period, Apple sold 97 million iPads,
an average of 19.4 million per quarter. (Sales in the five most
recent quarters averaged only 11.8 million.)
iPad sales have been declining since late 2013.
All those devices are still out there in the market. Some may
be broken and others are gathering dust in a closet, but a lot
of them are still in use. And they work just fine–the original
iPad Air was still being sold as new until less than a year
ago. As long as that huge mass of still-useful iPads begins to
need a replacement, it will be hard to tell what the
iPad’s real market size is.
In the end, I think the iPad market will stabilize,
the weird effects of the iPad gold rush of 2012–13 will wash
out of the market, and we’ll see a solid product line that will
begin to grow again. But right now we are still looking at the
sales equivalent of the Baby Boom–a very large lump in the
charts that distorts what otherwise might be an orderly, smooth
The iPad is a better bet for the future
Look out to 2025 and imagine a futuristic computing device made
from Apple that’s larger than a phone, filling the ecosystem
that currently is filled by laptops and iPads (and maybe even
desktop Macs). This is a thin, light device, with battery life
and sensors and other features that we can only dream about
Now draw a line to that device from one of Apple’s
current devices: the iPad or the Mac. Which device is more
likely to morph into that 2025 computing device in your mind?
Apple is capable of taking either in that direction,
but if I had to pick one, I’d pick the iPad, not the Mac.
This is not because I dislike the Mac, nor is it because I
think the Mac has no future. I think the Mac will continue to
evolve and survive and maybe even thrive for years to come. But
when I imagine that future device, I imagine one with a rich
touchscreen interface that’s not burdened by the trappings of
how computer interfaces were designed in the 1980s. For the Mac
to get there, it would need to sacrifice a lot of its innate
Mac-ness and become something very different.
Apple seems to see the Mac as a rock-solid platform for laptop
and desktop computers that people depend on to do their jobs.
The Mac is, in many ways, defined by the fact that
it’s a keyboard-and-trackpad-driven system with a windowed user
interface. If you take that away and simplify the Mac, you
might be able to get to something a bit closer to the iPad–but
you risk losing some of the key attributes that make the Mac
what it is.
The iPad, on the other hand, seems not too far away from that
2025 device already. What’s required is an evolution of the
very simple touch interface pioneered by the iPhone in order to
provide the tools that sophisticated and demanding users need
to get their jobs done. With the addition of iCloud Drive and
support for other cloud services, Apple basically gave the iPad
a browsable file hierarchy.
For the iPad to get there, however, Apple will need to up its
game when it comes to growing iOS. After all, 2025 is only
eight years away; a new iPad feature or two every other year
between now and then won’t get it done. iOS needs better
peripheral support, more sophisticated windowing and
multitasking, improvements to file handling, better support for
application and system automation, and a whole lot more. But if
Apple puts the work in, the iPad could be that device in
2025–and still clearly be recognizable to a visitor from 2017
as an iPad.
In the meantime, the Mac can evolve at its own pace–and still
remain the Mac.
Smartphones are too small
By all rights, this entire argument should be moot: the
smartphone is the future of computing. I agree, the
smartphone is the single most important computing device in our
There’s just one problem: Smartphones are designed to fit in
our pockets, and I don’t think all the work we do in our lives
can be ported to a screen that’s 5 or 6 inches diagonal.
A smartphone just isn’t big enough for everything we need to
Different jobs have different needs, but many of them will
require screens that are 10, 13, 17, even 27 or 30 inches
diagonal. So if we believe that the smartphone is the future,
but that sometimes you need a screen that’s bigger, what’s the
product that fits that description?
An external touchscreen you can dock your smartphone to? That
might happen, but it seems more likely that the future will
involve multiple devices synced to cloud data, so you can move
between them with ease. (We’re already getting there.) A pair
augmented-reality glasses that let you operate an enormous
interface driven by your smartphone? It’s possible, but
remotely operating a virtual interface is not the same as
touching a physical object.
So assuming that in 2025 people will want to do work on larger
screens, the smartphone will need a companion device that can
provide those larger screens for different contexts. The Mac
might be the solution here, modified (in the vein of what
Microsoft’s doing with Windows) to provide that sort of
interface. But once again, the clearer solution is already with
us: it’s the iPad. Not just in the current sizes that range
from 7 to 13 inches, but ones a whole lot larger.
I’m not saying the iPad will certainly be the device people
will be using in 2025 to get their jobs done. But when I look
at where Apple is today and project into the future, it’s what
seems the most likely to grow into that device.