iPad 5 Years Later: A Story About Sales Volume

I’m an iPad power user. I have purchased 8 iPads, the first having been picked up on Day 1 in Seattle. This is only my story but it may be emblematic of why iPad sales are falling year-over-year when tallied on a quarterly basis.

Four iPad 1 devices were purchased for my family and extended family in 2010. Two of those are still in service, two have been retired from active use. Two iPad 3’s were purchased in the spring of 2012; one of which — MY iPad — is in active use, while the other was replaced and subsequently retired after its screen was broken. An iPad mini was purchased as a gift for a family member in December 2012 and is still in use. One iPad Air 2 was picked up in January 2015 as a replacement for one of the iPad 3’s.

iPad Launch Dates
iPad 1 – April 4, 2010
iPad 2 – March 11, 2011
iPad 3 – March 16, 2012
iPad 4 – November 2, 2012
ipad Mini – November 2, 2012
iPad Mini 2 – November 12, 2013
iPad Air – November 1, 2013
iPad Air 2 – October 22, 2014
iPad Mini 3 – October 22, 2014

Let’s take stock. Eight — yes, 8 — iPads purchased as personal devices and family gifts. 5 are still in service. 1 still works but has a broken screen, and heck, was replaced anyway.[1.¬†Why was it replaced? Not enough RAM. I hazard to guess that if that machine had been a 64 GB model that it may not have been replaced (save, of course, for me not dropping it).] In 5 years, my power user, iPad enthusiastic family, has found it necessary to replace 2 original iPads with 3rd generation devices, while only one of the third generation devices has been replaced with an iPad Air 2. I’m the heaviest user of the iPad in our family, the original disciple of tablet and hand-held computing in my trust circle and I’m not the guy with the iPad Air 2. My iPad is still the iPad 3 — the original model of retina screen iPads.

The iPad Air 2 is fast and ridiculously light, yet it seems to crash at the oddest of times — just like my iPad 3 — and, for me, does not represent enough of a usability improvement to upgrade given the way that I use my iPad. In fact, the way I use my iPad has not changed substantially over the past 2 to 3 years but it’s not from lack of trying. Here’s something else. I’m using my iPad less this year than I did 2 years ago. Is that because I have an iPhone 6+? Yes but that is not the whole story. When I am faced with a choice of using my laptop or an iPad these days, I seem more frequently to be reaching for the computer. That, for me,[2. I just don’t have the patience of Federico I guess.] is the key part of the story. The iPad — the glorious device that was bringing the future into our homes; the device that was not just a bigger iPhone — has turned into? Just a bigger iPhone. In 5 years the software development and usage models of the iPad have largely stagnated while the hardware has ambled ahead. A time of reflection and reckoning may be upon us.

While Apple has chosen to converge the use case of the iPhone and the iPad, it has also maddeningly introduced more instability into it’s fundamental software. In my experience, neither iOS 7 or iOS 8 have achieved the kind of stability on the iPad that they did on the iPhone. iOS 8 is still as problematic to use on an iPad Air 2 as it is on the iPad 3. Safari is just as unpredictable and hobbled a browser as it seems to have been from day one in April 2010. We have put up with many quirks and idiosyncrasies in using iOS on the iPad over the years. Many have been remedied but many still remain. For example, the copy and paste model needs a re-think, switching between apps is tedious, the single window modality is frequently a hindrance to inter-app usage and the inability of developers to tap into Siri seems petty and capricious. Maybe all of that is going to change. Maybe there are not enough resources at Apple to develop interesting innovations in iOS for iPad. Maybe I’m an edge case and these ideas represent nothing more than a whisper in a hurricane. I’m convinced however that if I — an original iPad fanboy — is having doubts about the general stability, usability, usefulness and future of the iPad, what of the general users? If all you think an iPad is good for is reading or watching Netflix there is compelling little to incent you to buy the latest and greatest hardware. Things get even more confusing with all of the models and monikers of iPad available today – mini, Air, Air 2, mini Air 3. Huh? Typical prospective users and people seeking replacement iPads must find the array of flat, hand-held product available from Apple today confusing. They all sort of look the same but boy are there a lot of price points. That is not the logical follow-on to “It just works.”

As iPad processing power and graphics speed moves to “Eleven” it becomes harder and harder to fathom why there is not more power in the user and operating system experience on the iPad. That power can be found in OS X. If there’s going to be convergence in Apple platforms why not nudge the iPad closer to the power curve of the Mac laptop line? There are times when I look at the Microsoft Surface 3 and understand the position they are taking with that integration of hardware and software. Once Windows 10 hits the Surface there will be serious usability clout in that universe. Apple need not follow but they should learn. The Surface would likely not exist without the iPad having been invented. What’s a key benefit of the Surface that the iPad does not have? Screen interaction using a stylus as well as touch interactivity. Sure you can approximate that on an iPad with a third party stylus. It’s not satisfying. I have tried numerous hand writing, stylus enhanced and written note workflows on the iPad over the years. None have stuck. The best note taking workflow that I use is to hand write notes on paper — say, at a meeting — following that up by dictating them into my phone or iPad later that same day. It’s a better workflow that enforces a review (’cause you have to read the notes to dictate them…) and creates searchable information in the iPad.

Some have wondered what has happened to the power of developers to lever iOS and create ever more powerful apps. Here are two possible reasons — there are others and this is a complex subject but let’s just look at these two:
1) There isn’t enough money in it to create ever more complex apps because the app ecosystem is all about dollar store economics, and;
2) Apple is not opening up enough of the power of iOS to develop a new era of touch enhanced, hand-held applications.

I think yes and yes.

There are precious few developers like OmniGroup that craft consistent product at sustainable prices. Search the internets and you will find the chorus of “too expensive” sung frequently in reference to Omni’s pricing. It’s a shame since small developer-based businesses need higher prices to fund the research and innovation necessary to write better and better apps. There are developers — Pixelmator comes to mind — pushing the boundaries of Apple hardware with great apps at low prices but I worry about the sustainability of that model for many developers.

What’s especially egregious is the blatant copying and re-packaging of applications that appear on the App Store. It’s a game of whack-a-mole that Apple seems unwilling to address, preferring to let developers be their own canaries. Something has to change in the App ecosystem in order to encourage independent developers to innovate without having to resort to business models like advertising, selling user data or hoping to be bought out by Google, Facebook or Microsoft.

As far as the operating system restrictions go, it often appears like Apple’s own guidelines are subject to sudden or unexplained changes. Some of these changes result in valid software ideas just going away. There does seem to be a maturing willingness to provide better and more developer features. WWDC 2014 was an exciting turn in the right direction with a fantastic mix of language features and innovative OS developments that could be exploited by developers. There is a long way to go; we’ll see how things play out with the evolution of the Apple Watch and WWDC 2015.

What’s interesting is that in the Android world — where more access to basic operating system power is available — apps do not appear to be more powerful than what you can find on iOS. Perhaps the inter-app interconnectivity is somewhat better depending on the app but in the aggregate the Android development environment has not driven application performance and usability ahead of iOS. That suggests that the pricing and delivery model of the App stores may be a factor. If this is a game of free or low cost at high volumes, there will be few dollars to invest for the next big thing no matter what the platform. What we get is more of the last big thing.

I can accept that phones and tablets are mass market devices that should provide consistent and reliable access to key services; internet, communications, video, photos. All of those things are done better now than they were in 2010. What we have not yet experienced however is a next generation of software power and innovation in the iPad. The hardware capabilities of the devices is more than adequate to allow it. Judging by reports and rumours, Apple may be unleashing even more tablet hardware innovation later in 2015. When will the platform be allowed to be more than a big iPhone? When will we see development environments and capabilities that equal or better what we see on the Mac platform? What economic models will spur independent developers to build sustainable businesses making next generation software? When these questions are addressed, we’ll see a return to growth in the sales of the iPad.

Inspirations and Background:
Viticci – http://www.macstories.net/stories/ipad-air-2-review-why-the-ipad-became-my-main-computer/
Dawn Patrol – http://technicaldifficulties.us/episodes/td-dawn-patrol/017-ruin-your-life-with-pythonista#forcing-apple-evolution
Dr. Drang – http://leancrew.com/all-this/2015/04/moving-averages-and-the-ipad/

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