The iPad’s Deep Niche

Jared Sinclair (who I find by way of Alan Jacobs), in a well-reasoned post, comes to an “uncomfortable conclusion” about the iPad:

In order for the iPad to fulfill its supposed Post-PC destiny, it has to either become more like an iPhone or more like a Mac. But it can’t do either without losing its raison d’être.

I’m not at all convinced that this is true. First, though, I agree with him on some key points, such as:

Although both the iPhone and the iPad are multi-purpose devices, it seems only the iPhone fills a multi-purpose need in customers’ lives. A typical customer’s iPhone is put to work in all its capacity, while her iPad is relegated to only one or two niche uses. An iPhone is a phone, a flashlight, a GPS navigator, a camera, etc. An iPad can be most of those things, but in practice it gets stuck being just one or two of them.

I’d word this somewhat differently, but largely this is correct: the smartphone is a Swiss Army Knife of tools that most folks who are even tangentially involved in the information economy need to have on them today. And even if they’re not, it’s come to replace many of the other devices most consumers would otherwise think of as standard. You need a smartphone (here, specifically an iPhone) because you need a smartphone.

Sinclair argues that in many ways the iPad over-serves its users in relation to the iPhone in many areas, and then goes on to contrast where the iPad falls short versus phones and Macs. Here’s what he says about the Mac:

A Mac is Better Than an iPad for…

Workplace Productivity – The Mac has an exposed file system, physical keyboard, a pixel-accurate pointing device, and multitasking applications, all of which contribute to more efficient workflows.

Power Computing – There are some professional tasks that require powerful processors, expansion ports, large storage devices, multiple displays, etc. These features are only available on a PC.

No arguments here. The Mac/PC is what you have to go to if you want to do most serious work in an effecient way. Yes, there are some blurry lines and overlap (lately I’ve found iMovie on the iPad more convenient for quick video editing of my kids’ antics than on the Mac, for example), but in 95% of cases, excepting those special circumstances that happen mostly in iPad commercials, you need a Mac to do “work-work.”

Here’s where Sinclair comes down:

I think the future of the iPad is for it to disappear, absorbed at the low end by iPhones with large displays and at the high end by Macs running a more iOS-like flavor of OS X. Perhaps it won’t disappear completely. After all, for certain niche uses [Sinclair is referring to things like reading, movies, and the things that happen in iPad commercials] … the iPad is great because it’s neither a phone nor a PC. But these are still niche uses and can’t possibly sustain the long, bountiful future that many hope the iPad has.

And here’s where I disagree. I can grant all the facts he presents. Yes, the iPad is not as good at utility-belt type stuff as the iPhone, and it’s not as good at get-work-done-at-my-desk stuff as the Mac. But I think that’s because, as I noted in the opening paragraphs ofmy iPad Air review, the iPad shines as the device you reach for when you don’t need the other two. Speaking in broad terms, you use a smartphone because you need, at that moment, what it provides. You use a Mac/PC because you need what it can do in order to do your job, or what have you.

You use an iPad, however, because you’re now on your time, and can do the things youwant to do, rather than what you need to do. You can kick back and read, or watch movies, or draw, paint, fiddle with music, chat on social media, futz around on the Web, work on your novella, play Tiny Wings, and so on.

Again, there’s enormous overlap for these functions among all three of these device categories, but I still submit that smartphones and PCs broadly exist as “necessities” for modern work, and the iPad, broadly, is your off-time device, the device you use when “need” or “must” becomes “want” or “choose.”

I don’t see that going away by any means. For some, of course, a phone is enough, especially if they opt for phablets. For others, a laptop is sufficiently “casual” to use as one’s kick-back machine. But I think that tablets (iPads, really) excel in this space, being the device-of-choosing. That doesn’t mean that they will remain explosive in terms of sales. Once you have a good iPad, you don’t need to upgrade often at all. But if the space that the iPad occupies can be described as a “niche,” then it’s a deep and wide niche, one that will not be covered over any time soon.

(And a small note on phone sizes: Having now owned, briefly, a couple of medium-sized Android phones that were overall excellent, there’s just no getting around that I highly, highly prefer the smaller size of the iPhone. One-handed use is something you don’t realize how much you miss until it’s gone, as it’s so incredibly useful and convenient that its utility dwarfs the benefits a larger and more dazzling screen might provide – and I include the 4.7″ Moto X as too big. So I actually suspect/hope that phones won’t subsume the iPad in that particular direction by increasing in size. And I hope Apple doesn’t abandon the current iPhone size as it almost certainly also introduces larger iPhones this year.)

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