Apple Is Pushing iPad Like Never Before

Apple is pulling out all the stops when it comes to selling iPad. We are seeing the company take its most aggressive stance yet in getting existing iPad owners to upgrade. For the first time, Apple is also making a concerted effort to reach prospective iPad owners by targeting PC users. On the surface, these efforts seem like a last ditch effort to save iPad, which faces continued sales declines. However, Apple is guided by a different motive. There are signs of Apple pushing iPad like never before in order to solve its growing Mac dilemma.

Initial Look at iPad Sales

A quick look at overall iPad sales reveals an ominous trend. Sales have declined for 12 consecutive quarters. After topping out 74M units in 1Q14, the annualized iPad sales rate has declined by 42% to 43M units.

Exhibit 1: iPad Unit Sales (TTM)

When iPad is compared to iPhone and Mac, its sales weakness becomes even more pronounced. The sales gap between iPad and Mac continues to shrink. This has drawn into question Apple's vision for iPad and whether or not the device is the best representation of the future of personal computing. There are even people beginning to question some aspects of the post-PC era as steady Mac sales suggest consumers aren't moving away from laptops and desktops. 

Exhibit 2: iPhone, iPad, Mac Unit Sales (TTM)

For the past four years, we have seen various theories put forth to explain the significant drop in iPad sales. Longer upgrade cycles, larger iPhones, inferior software, lack of professional apps, and even poor Apple storytelling have been given as factors driving iPad sales weakness. 

iPad Strategy Changes

As sales have declined, Apple has implemented a number of significant changes in its iPad strategy. Many of these changes have occurred within the past year and a half. The latest changes were unveiled last week when Apple announced the new 9.7-inch iPad. (My complete review of Apple's new product announcements is available for members here.)

iPad Pro. The most obvious change relates to the iPad Pro line. The defining features of the iPad Pro are the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard support, which were introduced in 2015. One of the biggest criticisms facing the iPad over the past few years is that it is a consumption device used primarily for watching video. The iPad Pro seeks to change that narrative. The overall strategy with the iPad Pro is to release higher-priced SKUs offering additional functionality and capability.

Additional Simplicity. The iPad Air era is officially over at Apple. By positioning the new 9.7-inch iPad as the iPad Air 2 successor, the overall iPad line is much simpler. In fact, the iPad line contains the most simplicity in years. The "iPad Air" nomenclature had lost much of its meaning last year following the 9.7-inch iPad Pro unveiling as each device shared similar dimensions and identical weight. 

As seen below, Apple reduced the iPad line by 20% (five models down to four) and simplified the branding. 

 
 

By removing the iPad Air from the line, Apple made the iPad buying equation that much easier for consumers. This simplicity is a sign of Apple doubling down on the 9.7-inch iPad as the flagship iPad size. (The actual screen size may change slightly going forward depending on the screen to bezel ratio.) The choice is either between an iPad Pro or an iPad. Meanwhile, the iPad mini will become niche, available for consumers wanting an iPad with a smaller footprint.

Aggressive Pricing. Apple slashed the entry-level price for the 9.7-inch iPad to $329 from $399. Special $299 pricing for education institutions is also available. This is an aggressive pricing strategy considering that Apple was selling the 9.7-inch iPad Air 2 for $499 as recently as 12 months ago. The iPad mini had represented the entry-level iPad model when it came to pricing. Since the company is now positioning the smaller iPad as a niche device, the new distinction comes with a higher price.

Clearer Storytelling. Apple recently launched its largest iPad ad campaign to date. In what is called "Real Problems... answered," Apple showcases real tweets depicting computing problems and then demonstrates how the iPad Pro offers solutions. The ad campaign is a big deal for Apple and a sign of management directly reaching out to PC users as potential iPad purchasers. The company has been quite aggressive with its airing of the ads in recent weeks. 

 
 

One of the more interesting observations about the ads is how they end up making long-time MacBook users nervous. Apple is positioning iPad Pro as a better computer than laptops, and by extension, MacBooks.

Closer Look at iPad Sales

In order to properly assess all of the recent changes to iPad strategy, a closer look at sales is needed. While overall iPad sales have been in decline for years, reports of iPad's death have been greatly exaggerated. There is much more going on behind the scenes.

iPad sales have faced one major headwind in recent years. This item explains a significant portion of the sales decline. It's not inferior software, weak storytelling, or even a longer upgrade cycle. Instead, the iPad's problem has been the iPad mini.

People aren't buying as many iPad mini devices these days. Excluding 7.9-inch iPad mini sales from overall iPad sales results in a completely different sales picture. As seen in Exhibit 3, iPad mini unit sales have declined 70% after peaking in 4Q13 and 1Q14. The product's value proposition has been permanently reduced due to larger iPhones. Apple has clearly experienced Peak iPad Mini. It's not that the iPad mini form factor is going away, but rather that it will play a smaller role going forward. 

iPad mini sales weakness has masked stronger sales trends for larger iPads. In what will come as a surprise to many, the iPad Air 2 has been the best-selling iPad to date. In addition, more than half of people buying an iPad Air 2 were new to iPad. These are very promising signs for the iPad business. Not only are large screen (9.7-inch and 12.9-inch) iPad sales relatively unchanged over the past four years, but they actually have increased year-over-year this past holiday quarter. The iPad Pro line played a major role in this sales rebound. 

Exhibit 3: iPad Unit Sales by Screen Size (TTM)

Given iPad mini sales weakness, management is placing a big bet on larger iPad screens. By lowering the entry-level cost of the 9.7-inch model to $329, Apple is looking to make the most appealing iPad size more accessible. At the same time, the company is offsetting margin and ASP pressure by moving up market with more capable iPad Pro SKUs and accessories. The Apple Pencil accessory is one of the most underrated Apple products in years. 

Solving the Mac Dilemma

Since large screen iPads having shown much more resiliency over the past few years, Apple's recent iPad changes seem peculiar. Why double down on the iPad now?

Apple is pushing the iPad like never before in order to solve its Mac dilemma.

Ultimately, management has two options for the Mac:

  1. Double down. From a product perspective, there is a clear path forward for the laptop and desktop form factors at Apple. The company could continue bringing elements of mobile to the Mac. Apple can control more of the core technologies powering the Mac, and this would include bringing a version of iOS to the laptop and desktop form factors. The effort would take years to accomplish and utilize a significant amount of resources. 
  2. Move beyond the Mac. This option would begin with more sporadic updates to the Mac line and then eventually lead to Apple placing less and less attention on the category as other products gain priority and resources. While Apple would still sell Macs, it would become clear that the company's focus is on newer products designed to handle the tasks currently given to the Mac.

Management faces a difficult choice between the two options as the Mac is still selling very well. The product category is bringing in nearly $23B of revenue per year, $4B more than iPad thanks to a much higher ASP. Some companies are powered by Macs (although Apple executives seem to rely quite a bit on their iPads these days). Tens of millions of users rely on Macs to get work done every day. A portion of these users are adamant that a move away from Mac is nearly impossible given their current workflows.

My suspicion is that Apple is pushing larger screen iPads because management is determined to move beyond the Mac. Apple thinks now is the time to raise awareness that the iPad is a legitimate PC alternative for hundreds of millions of consumers. 

A move away from the Mac goes against much of the public commentary from Apple management. Tim Cook, Phil Schiller, and others have been quick to mention Apple's long-term commitment to the Mac with Phil Schiller even saying the laptop form factor will be around for another 25 years. However, management's recent actions speak louder:

  • Tim Cook calling the iPad the clearest expression of Apple's vision of the future of personal computing.
  • The new iPad Pro ad campaign elevating the iPad at the expense of Mac.
  • Aggressive iPad pricing highlighting Apple's desire to position the device for mass market consumption, while Mac pricing is more reflective of a niche product.

The iPad Strategy

As seen in Exhibit 4, the sales gap between large screen iPads and Mac peaked five years ago. The gap has since closed, with large screen iPad sales bouncing around 30M units annually and Mac sales seeing a slight improvement to 19M units. If Mac were to outsell iPad, this would certainly make Apple's goal in moving beyond the Mac that much more difficult. It would demonstrate how Apple has a serious problem on its hand as the iPad is not able to entice users away from Mac. Management is interested in avoiding that outcome.

Apple wants to push iPad sales now like never before in order to widen the sales gap between iPad and Mac. Large screen iPads have experienced some momentum in recent months. Management is building off that strength to unveil a broader campaign to boost iPad sales. If Apple is successful in increasing large screen iPad sales to a 40M unit sales annual pace (a 30% increase from current levels), iPad would be outselling Mac by 2x. This would certainly help change the iPad versus Mac narrative in the marketplace, giving Apple that much more motivation to dedicate attention and resources to other products. 

Exhibit 4: Mac, Large Screen iPad Unit Sales (TTM)

Apple is making its iPad sales pitch to two groups: existing iPad users and long-time PC users. According to my estimates, there are 100M users still using older iPads (iPad 1, iPad 2, iPad 3, iPad 4, iPad mini). A significant portion of these users are using devices that don't even support the latest iOS release. Management thinks simpler storytelling and an aggressively low $329 price will entice these users to upgrade to the new 9.7-inch iPad.

The fact that 100M people are still using older iPads demonstrates that the product provides value. Apple is also confident that users will see the significant improvement between the latest iPads and models from five to seven years ago. As for PC users, Apple thinks the iPad Pro line is capable of handling the vast majority of tasks currently given to laptops. Apple looks at the iPad Pro line, which includes Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard, as a better solution for consumers than even the Mac. This is quite telling as to management's long-term motivation. 

While the iPhone has likely reduced the iPad's long-term sales trajectory, the iPad category is being underestimated. Apple thinks that now is the time to become much more aggressive in selling iPad. Fortunately, we will be able to judge Apple's progress by monitoring quarterly iPad sales. With a dramatic price cut, simpler sales pitch, reduced headwind from iPad mini sales, and a differentiated product line, Apple is confident the iPad will return to growth. A growing iPad business will then make it that much easier for Apple to move beyond the Mac and focus on creating a new breed of personal gadgets that make technology more personal. 

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