Magical Thinking Won’t Make the iPad Rise Again

Photo credit: plynoi / Foter / CC BY-NC
A few months ago I made the case that iPads and tablets generally were a product category in crisis. Ever-larger and more powerful phones with ever-slimmer, lighter, and simply more pleasant laptops means that the use-case for tablets severely dwindles. And I say this as a genuine fan of tablets, but also as someone who no longer owns one because of their functional redundancy.

A few days ago, Neil Cybart at Above Avalon, an Apple analysis site, made more or less the same case, but focused as much on sales numbers as on use-cases. (I’m maybe a little peeved that my post was ignored and this one is getting serious attention from the tech punditocracy, but I’m nobody, so whatever.) Cybart emphasizes how tablets are primarily used for watching video, and therefore don’t require frequent upgrades or high-end hardware.

He’s right. They are mostly passive devices, thin little TVs. They are largely not being used for high-end productivity or for the advancement of the humanities. Of course there are exceptions, as power users can certainly make incredible use of tablets, but the mass market is buying them to watch Netflix, check Facebook, and look at the email they don’t want to respond to.

Where I differ from Cybart is in his vision for iPad success and growth:

By selling a device that is truly designed from the ground-up with content creation in mind, the iPad line can regain a level of relevancy that it has lost over the past few years. In every instance where the iPad is languishing in education and enterprise, a larger iPad with a 12.9-inch, Force Touch-enabled screen would carry more potential.

He goes on to lay out potential use-cases in education, enterprise, and general consumer computing, all of which hinge on Apple heavily focusing on making it easier to manage and juggle multiple applications and windows, and more pleasant and ergonomic to type.

I think he’s wrong. I think this particular vision is an example of a kind of Apple-is-magic thinking in which Apple grudgingly stuffs complex functionality into the constricting parameters of its platonic ideal of a “simple” computing device. Geeks like me cheered when Apple added things like third-party keyboards and improved sharing capabilities to iOS, but many (including me) quickly grew frustrated as it became clear that Apple’s efforts were kludgy, a series of half-realized solutions that prioritized Apple’s sense of preciousness over consistent usability.

I feel like this is what Cybart is asking for when he prescribes these more powerful capabilities for a hypothetical iPad Plus or iPad Pro. Barring unforeseeable and massive leaps in input and UI technology, even a big, powerful iPad will remain a rectangle displaying pixels, used by two-handed primates with 10 digits. There’s only so much complexity, and so much productivity, such a thing could ever realize. We’ve almost certainly not seen tablets hit a ceiling in terms of what degree of productivity they can eke out, but I bet we’re damned close.

(And for that matter, why is it so important to envision scenarios of revived success for iPads at all? Why be invested in this? Could it be because some of us are more concerned with identities as Apple aficionados than we are with actually having the best devices for a given need?)

Meanwhile, high-end, slim laptops get lighter and nicer to use, and still maintain all the functionality we’ve been conditioned to expect from PCs. You don’t have to connect a Bluetooth keyboard, you don’t have to buy a stand or a special case to do any of it. You just open your laptop, and there’s your screen, keyboard, and trackpad. And lots of laptops also allow for touch input, in case you really want that too. Even though it’s a more or less “old” idea by technology standards, it’s damned convenient when you think about it.

Phones are getting bigger, with higher-resolution displays, and as I just noted, more and more they’re even being used to read books. They’re great for video watching (as are laptops), for games, for checking Facebook, and for ignoring emails (as are laptops). Oh, and it’s already in your pocket or bag, and goes everywhere with you. No tablet needed. When people derided the first iPad as “a big iPhone,” it turns out that’s really what people wanted, not a replacement for their PC, but a bigger phone.

But even if we assume that iPads will reach the kind of functional threshold that Cybart predicts, they’d still have to be better suited for productivity than laptops, which they can’t be, and perhaps more importantly, be demonstrably better than things like high-quality Chromebooks and Chromebases that can deliver most or all of the features and conveniences of laptops and tablets, including touchscreens.

Chrome-based devices, I think, are the products that are truly on the verge of breaking through to mass adoption in the very areas Cybart sees as fruitful for the iPad. Cheap Chromebooks are already growing in education, and as they become more obviously of a higher quality, there’s no reason to think they won’t make inroads into the consumer and enterprise spaces. And perhaps the biggest irony there, with Chrome more or less being a browser, is that they’ll be simpler to implement and use than an iPad. That’s not the Apple narrative, Apple is always supposed to be simpler and more intuitive, but I think it’s easy to see that their devotion to simple-as-defined-by-us has largely just made things clunkier for their products.

I should note that I really do love iPads and tablets. I certainly wouldn’t turn one down. They’re often pleasant to use, beautifully made, and convenient.

Just not enough to keep dropping over $500 on them. Maybe once, and then not again for a long, long time. (I got my wife an iPad Air for Christmas, and she was happy but a little confused because her old iPad 3 was more than fine for her.) I don’t think Apple finding a way to snap two apps’ windows together on the screen, or vibrating under your fingers, is going to change any of that.