Tuesday, January 27, 2015
How the iPad Went From Massive to ‘Meh’ in 5 Short Years
Five years ago today, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in a keynote where he spent a lot of time sitting on a couch. The audience went wild, but out in the rest of the world, not everyone stood up and cheered.
Just after the big reveal, WIRED polled its readers to find out how they felt about this new giant iPhone without the phone. About 60 percent said they didn’t plan on buying one, mainly because their laptops and smartphones already had them covered. They didn’t need a third thing in between.
Pundits said much the same thing. “The iPad falls between two stools—not quite a laptop, not quite a smartphone,” Charlie Brooker wrote in The Guardian. “In other words, it’s the spork of the electronic consumer goods world.”
Apple ended up selling a lot of sporks. But, funny thing, that early, skeptical reception to the iPad was just ahead of its time. In the end, you really just need the spoon and the fork.
Still, the genius of the iPad, and the reason for its massive popularity, was that Apple realized it didn’t have to make a device that people needed. It just had to make something they would want. Later in his piece, which published the weekend after Jobs’ 2010 keynote, Brooker distilled the brilliant mundanity of the iPad down to its essence. “It looks ideal for idly browsing the web while watching telly. And I suspect that’s what it’ll largely be used for,” he said. “Millions of people watch TV while checking their emails: it’s a perfect match for them.”
Early ads played heavily on the idea of the iPad as a device for leisure. In one billboard I saw every day for weeks on my walk to work, an iPad sat atop an anonymous lap in fashionable pants. It was a vision of computing not as a productive activity—hunched over a laptop, gripping a smartphone on the way to the next meeting—but as an unapologetic form of relaxation. Even if you were using the iPad for work, Apple marketers and the design of the device itself suggested you were getting things done in a way that was relaxed, even effortless.
“Effortless” definitely describes how easy it seemed for Apple to sell iPads in those early days. Quarter after quarter, iPad sales doubled and sometimes nearly tripled compared to the same time a year earlier. By its second full year on sale, the number of iPads sold hit the double-digit millions every quarter—more than 58 million total in Apple’s fiscal 2012. This thing that didn’t have a clear reason to be had found its way into laps all over the world, seemingly inventing a whole new category of computing in the process.
Apple hasn’t figured out many new things to do with the iPad to bring back the old excitement.
But then a funny thing happened. The number of laps seeking iPads started to get smaller. The first decline came in the third quarter of 2013, when iPad sales fell from just over 17 million a year earlier to a little more than 14.6 million. At the time, the absence of a new flagship model was blamed. But then the falloff continued.
After a record 26 million iPads sold at the beginning of 2014, the next three quarters saw sales drop. To be sure, Apple is still selling a ton of iPads—about 68 million in its last fiscal year. The issue isn’t people don’t want iPads. It’s just that people don’t want them in increasing numbers anymore. “Apple’s wildly successful iPad is plateauing,” as Forrester’s James McQuivey put it.
And the reason isn’t hard to figure out. It’s basically what WIRED readers pointed out way back in 2010. Smartphones and laptops pretty much already do all the stuff you would use an iPad for. Except they didn’t as much back then.
The most obvious change is the incredibly expanding smartphone screen. Apple held out as long as it could as Android-based competitors kept making screens bigger, and consumers kept responding. But now with the iPhone 6 Plus, Apple has phone that is itself almost big enough to set in your lap. At the same time, laptops—especially Apple’s—kept getting thinner and lighter, encroaching on the iPad’s key selling points in the process.
Apple still sells way more iPads than it does Macs. But Mac sales are on the rise. And the Apple rumor mill is saying the next MacBook Air will be the most iPad-ish yet.
At the same time, Apple hasn’t figured out many new things to do with the iPad to bring back the old excitement. During the October keynote to launch the latest model, Apple executives gushed and gushed and gushed about how *thin* the new iPad was. And it is! The iPad Air 2 is thin, elegant, and so light it just might float right off your lap. But the drama is gone.
The iPad is nice. You might still hang out together sometimes on the couch. But when you’re done, you probably just put it down on the pile with all the magazines and mail and other stuff stacking up on the coffee table. It’s just another way to waste a little time.