The iPad is at a crossroads. Introduced by Steve Jobs four years ago, the iPad has gone on to become a phenomenal success (225 million units sold bringing in $112 billion of revenue and approximately $30 billion of profit), but I suspect Apple management will alter the iPad line-up in response to wearable devices and larger-screen phones and in the process iPad’s ultimate trajectory will be more modest and niche than many expect.
Slowing iPad Sales Momentum
iPad sales growth has slowed dramatically from 65% year-over-year unit growth in 2013 to a 10% year-over-year unit decline last quarter. Such a contrast is startling given how promising iPad seemed in early 2013. When I first discussed my iPad concerns in 2013 (Apple had just reported a much weaker-than-expected quarter for iPad shipments), I received very strong pushback as many said iPad was fine and just suffering from varying release cycles. I knew that was not the reason for the sales weakness, but it was still hard to see why iPad sales and the overall tablet market were slowing so dramatically. Some pointed to longer upgrade cycles, which has some truth to it, but I wasn’t convinced that variable had enough explanatory power to turn 50%+ growth into sale declines within a few months as iPad was not near saturation (there are plenty of people who don’t own an iPad). I suspect there has been a much broader ongoing trend for why iPad has been struggling to gain new users; larger-screen phones have been cannibalizing iPad sales and iPhone 6 is going to make things worse for iPad.
A Different World
For a new product category, iPad’s sales pitch was fairly straightforward; a device that sat between your phone and PC; able to do a few tasks better than both your phone and computer. Web surfing and email were highlighted as prime examples, as well as reading ebooks. Initial sales were very strong and the iPad was off to the races. Fast-forward four years, and iPad faces a much different consumer tech landscape.
- iPhone (along with most phones) have small displays.
- MacBooks are thick, heavy, and non-retina.
- People are completely mesmerized by new apps.
- Phones are much bigger (iPhone now comes in 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch display options).
- MacBooks are thin, light, and retina.
- The paid app (and even free app) ecosystem is tired and somewhat stale.
Apple now has a much harder sales pitch to make for iPad. Why buy an iPad when you could have an iPhone with a screen that doesn’t seem that much smaller than an iPad mini? Why buy an iPad when you can have a more powerful and just as easily transportable Macbook Air? The space between a phone and PC is smaller now than in 2010 primarily as the phone has become more powerful and larger. Tablets are getting squeezed.
Slowing iPad App Innovation
I can’t remember the last time I downloaded an iPad app. Curious to see how others were doing, I posed a question on Twitter, “How many iPad apps have you downloaded in the past month?” On any given question I get a decent number of responses, but this time I received a very muted reaction with a few “0” responses. Why am I not downloading iPad apps? I consider iPad app innovation to have slowed with iPhone continuing to take a disproportionately high amount of attention in the app ecosystem. Most of my daily mobile usage now occurs on an iPhone.
Messaging: iPhone (iMessage, Facebook, Twitter)
Web surfing: iPhone (Tweetbot)
Games: Not many games, but the latest fad is usually on iPhone
Video podcasts: iPad (for the larger screen)
I suspect one reason for suboptimal iPad app innovation has been that app developers have been too preoccupied with iPhone’s explosive usage to focus resources on iPad and if everyone is focused on iPhone, can you blame them? Of course, I’m not suggesting there is not intriguing software for iPad. Anyone in a specialized field (medicine, sports, film, music, etc.) will be able to point out apps that harness iPad’s potential, but that is niche – and even Apple’s latest iPad commercials reiterate the niche factor. However, for the average person interested in basic tasks like web surfing, email, and photos, phones are very capable devices and are consequently winning a larger share of app innovation. As I wrote after a few days with my iPad back in 2011, the device is all about apps. If I have no interest in downloading or even using iPad apps, I view that as an ominous sign for its future. My interest is moving elsewhere, namely to iPhone, and soon Apple Watch.
iPad’s Primary Use Cases
I don’t want to paint such a grim picture for iPad. Apple is still selling millions of iPads (likely around 12 million during the past three months down from the 14 million last year). How could this be if the space between phones and PCs has been shrinking over the years and there isn’t the same quality of app innovation?
1) Laptop/Desktop Replacement. Many people are using iPads as their main computer, replacing old laptops or desktops. Interestingly, more people are telling me their parents and grandparents love iPad as it’s the first computer that is truly easy for them to use. In many ways, this is exactly what some saw when the iPad was unveiled – a laptop/desktop replacement. Looking ahead, however, I don’t see there being much to prevent phones from doing a better job at replacing laptops or desktops. Why buy an iPhone and iPad, when you can just buy a larger iPhone?
2) Education. While there have been high profile cases where large school districts, and even countries, considered implementing iPad programs, success seems to be underwhelming due to logistical concerns as well as budgetary limitations. I also think a lesser discussed reason is the proliferation of larger smartphones leading many students to use their phones much more in 2014 for tasks that the iPad was initially positioned to do. There’s clearly still a market for iPad in education, but I suspect it’s much smaller and more niche than many imagined a few years ago.
3) Enterprise. iPad in the workplace remains the unknown factor. I suspect iPad sales to the enterprise may represent a growing share of iPad sales. In this context, Apple’s recently announced partnership with IBM takes on a new light - one of offense to find use cases for iPad.
iPad Has a Future; It Just Needs Help
The iPad is a great device that needs some changes to reflect the current landscape.
1) Apple should stop selling the iPad mini. As a low-margin response to cheap Android tablets and given the lack of a large iPhone, the iPad mini served its purpose keeping Apple in the tablet game, but today there really aren’t many reasons to keep the iPad mini around. Consensus seems to think Apple will add Touch ID to iPad mini later this week along with some other updates, but beyond that, unless sales trends improve (I wouldn’t expect them to), I don’t see the iPad mini staying in the line-up for too long and I think that is only for the better. In order to keep product offerings in the same price range as iPad mini, Apple could work on lowering iPad Air pricing to approach that $299 level over time.
2) Introduce an iPad Pro. An iPad with a 12.9-inch retina display, new software that moves beyond just rows of app icons, and capable accessories including keyboard stands and styli. Once again, Apple’s IBM partnership comes into play. A large iPad Pro with customized software and accessories would certainly be more interesting to enterprise users than an iPad mini with basic office utilities.
Even with a product line-up consisting of an iPad Air and iPad Pro, I would still suspect phones to eventually cannibalize the larger iPad Pro, but Apple would at least be able to get another couple of years of respectable sales out of iPad. When you add Apple Watch to the equation, the scenario where people keep their large iPhones stashed away in a backpack, purse, or satchel, while their Apple Watch handles communication and notification functions doesn’t seem too much of a stretch. Maybe now you can see why I think so highly about Apple Watch’s potential while being more pessimistic towards iPad.
iPad Was the Right Product At The Right Time
I’m convinced if Apple had to do things over, they wouldn’t change a thing. The iPad was the right device at the right time. The past seven years in mobile has essentially boiled down to people discovering which sizes of glass they prefer in their pocket. In 2010, it seemed like consumers would want a phone, tablet, and laptop/desktop, with the tablet eventually replacing the laptop/desktop, although many in Asia and emerging markets disagreed. As phones become larger and more powerful and wearables become more popular, I suspect consumers will be content with just a phone and wearable device. I still see a future for iPad, but it looks more like Mac instead of an all-encompassing mobile device next to iPhone and maybe that is what Apple had in mind all along.