After Initial Euphoria, Then Letdown, iPad is Poised for Glory

| Columns & Opinions

The iPad launched with great enthusiasm in 2010, and just about everyone had to have one. It was boldly declared to be the harbinger of the Post-PC era. But then it faltered. Now, Apple is positioning the iPad to take up its long-intended role as the PC replacement. Here’s how Apple is going to do that.

iPad Pro

Apple executives don’t accept failure easily. And, for a time, it certainly did look like the iPad, after the new-car-smell wore off, that it was a product too far ahead of its time. It wasn’t ready to be the pace car of the Post-PC era. Sales have declined in recent years at an alarming rate. (To Apple, anyway.)

The analysis of the sales slowdown invariably led to the idea that the technology wasn’t changing fast enough and that the constraints of iOS, more and more, were holding the hardware back. As a result, millions of customers found that their iPad 2 or iPad 3 was “good enough” and there was no practical reason to rush out and replace their iPad every year.

One can only imagine the meetings at Apple, led by Tim Cook. I suspect, I know, tough questions were asked and orders given.

The iPad is faltering. Figure out why. Fix it.

In contrast, many pundits have been eager to see the technical situation as unsalvageable. They proposed that the iPad was a brilliant pipe-dream, but it just can’t compete with notebook computers with any OS, be it Chrome, Windows or OS X. To suggest that Tim Cook and Phil Schiller would sit back and shrug off the temporary failings saying, “Well, that’s life,” is laughable in the extreme.

This week’s article pick is a splendid analysis of the situation by Michael Cowling. “Apple is taking its first steps towards a more comprehensive post-PC world.” There are several notable concepts that are collected into focus.

1. The development of Swift Playgrounds. This is no doubt the byproduct of one of those tense Tim Cook “fix it” meetings. It’s not a toy. Rather Swift Playgrounds is likely the first in a series of ever more sophisticated tools to provide for code development on the iPad. This augments and elevates 3rd party coding apps like Pythonista.

2. The terrific advances in iPad’s CPU and graphics. Hardware improvements must not only lead to a better user experience, but they must lead to breakthroughs in Apple’s vision for the roadmap of the device. That seems to be happening.

Apple iPad performance over the years.

Apple SVP Phil Schiller shows the iPad performance gain over the years. GPU data similar.

3. The interoperability of devices. Apple’s development of interoperability amongst its various devices isn’t just a fanciful notion of better consumer experience. In reality, the idea is to allow us to do our work on whatever device suits us at the moment. That brings coherence to the evolution of the multiple platforms. As Mr. Cowling points out:

Ben Thompson, of Stratechery, called this concept Continuous Computing back in 2015 when he envisioned a world where we move seamlessly between devices to get our work done.

One of the stellar reminders of the current reality is the inclusion, by Cowling, of the seminal “truck” video by Steve Jobs. In that video Jobs lays out the analogy.

Cars : trucks :: iPads : PCs/Macs

It’s just that the transition to mostly cars and a few powerful trucks is taking longer than expected.

iPad Potential Yet to be FulFilled

It’s worth watching again. Right now, I see Apple’s emphasis on making the iPad fulfill its actual potential emerge in those three bullet points above. But first, we more or less had to struggle through the classic iPad “Hype Cycle” with its often mentioned “Trough of Disillusionment”. It’s a classic graph, so I won’t repeat it here.

The original iPad had just enough horsepower to achieve its goal as a convenient content consumption device. However, as technology has advanced, more and more constraints will be lifted until we get to an inflection point. Finally, we’ll hit that Plateau of Productivity in which the iPad can begin to grow again, not as a second-screen toy, but as our go-to device. In that case, like the former PC era, keeping up with the hardware and software advances will become essential.

That’s when the real Post-PC era will launch. And that’s when sales will takeoff again.

Next page: The Tech News Debris for the Week of July 18th. The Case for a Shatterproof iPhone.


2 Comments Add a comment

  1. I like the idea of the iPad being poised for glory. I like the idea of the robust hardware from the iPP coupled with a huge improvement to iOS making the pro a great content creation machine. However I just ran across something that makes me question your thesis.

    I am on the road. I have a bunch of pictures and want to make a book in Photos. Put it together. Send it off. It will be waiting in my mailbox when I get home. But, I just discovered that you can’t do that any more. You could in iOS8 but with 9 they stripped the ability to make a book, and I believe cards and calendars as well, out of iOS completely. You have to go to a Mac to make a Photos book.

    If Apple wants the iPad to be used as a content creation device, then don’t take content creation tools away from us.

  2. John:

    You’ve got some great selections here this week. I’m wondering aloud whether or not the dearth of follow-on commentary is influenced by pull of the US political convention coverage. Perhaps your summary of these articles is sufficiently comprehensive that most readers simply had nothing more to add, apart from the irrepressible Geoduck.

    The two topics that I found most interesting were those of your lead, the promise of the iPad, and the issue of the impact of robots on our socio-economic transition, specifically that they will not destroy jobs. As usual, I’m pressed for time, but cannot resist adding my two cents.

    First, the iPad. I think there are two main forces militating against expanded use of the iPad. The one identified in your selections, namely the software constraints of iOS, combined with limitations of the CPU and GPU of the early versions of the device, appear both plausible and substantiated by Apple’s response of tool creation (programming tools) and bolstering the capacity of the device. The second, in my view, is fundamentally human, namely the inertia of human habit, and the energy required to overcome that inertia and propel transition, and here is where I think many an analysis has fallen flat. Unlike the iPhone, which addressed an unmet need, was readily adopted, and thus seamlessly and organically transformed our culture, the use case for the iPad has been more complex. As introduced, most saw it as a consumption device (books, magazines, entertainment writ large), and far less as a productivity device. As the case for it being a productivity device gathered pace, its headwinds have consisted of both superior capability on most PCs for common usage (including Macs of all types) and comfort with those PCs by the generation endowed with the greatest purchasing power. This latter phenomenon is being assaulted now on two fronts. The first is what your piece highlights, expanded capability of the iPad and more tools to enable content creation and productivity. The second is a demographic transition, in which those with purchasing power are being replaced from below by a younger generation whose use-case will be influenced more by iOS than by the Mac. This generation will far more comfortable than their parents ever were with a touchscreen and a device that is essentially touch-based, and not key-board driven. We should bear in mind that when the PC emerged, it had no competition, apart from pen and paper-based work modes. The iPad competes, with a capacity disadvantage, against an entrenched and highly capable device in the PC. It can be argued that this inertia will ultimately be overcome by a demographic transition in which younger users, with new purchasing power, will opt for a device with which they have grown and are predisposed.

    Second, robots and their impact, economic and social. I argued last week that our expectations about new technologies, robots being no exception, are bent by the gravitational influence of our current experience and the limits this imposes on our imaginations and visionary horizons. In brief, while I take on board many of the points made by Robert Gordon in Timothy’s Lee’s interview, I am reminded of the principle of the inflection point of new technologies, and how when these are reached, not only is adoption increased but so too is use case in ways that a previous generation could never have imagined, with a transformation of culture and a new generation’s expectations. Specifically, what I think we have yet to see is the impact of the interplay between robotics and AI, and how, when these are married in a way that permits workflow coordination and efficiency on a near-global scale, with not only substantial cost reduction per output, but a freeing of human potential to address new frontiers, such as new energy production, bio-engineering in medicine and health, and new infrastructural development to meet the consumption and social needs of more global community, then I think we will see a paradigm shift in robotics use. Currently, most current robotic use, not unlike our old PCs in the pre-internet of all things world of the late 1980’s and early1990’s, is isolated and situation-specific. Once these are coordinated and harmonised by secure AI designed, first and foremost, to ensure human safety and second efficiency and freedom from drudgery, and acting across whole sectors of industry and private use, then I think we will see that inflection point, which will galvanise an entirely new use case for robotics. The impact on our economy, let alone our culture, is beyond the ken of our current experience, and I think predictions of its impact is thus premature.


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