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Don’t Blame The iPad’s Malaise On The App Situation

The iPad ecosystem is still going strong, so why are pundits calling it a failure?

Don’t Blame The iPad’s Malaise On The App Situation
[Photo: Flickr user LWYang]

Over the past couple of weeks, tech pundits have been grappling with an unusual question: Why isn’t an Apple product selling as well as it should?

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That product, of course, is the iPad, whose year-over-year sales have declined in each of the last three quarters. Two of the most likely reasons–as called out by CEO Tim Cook in Apple’s latest earnings call–are slow upgrade cycles for existing users and increased cannibalization by iPhones and Macs.

Still, some tech watchers are looking for deeper explanations. In a widely cited piece, pseudonymous blogger “Sammy the Walrus IV” wrote that iPad apps just don’t have the same appeal anymore, because developers have shifted their focus to the iPhone. “I consider iPad app innovation to have slowed with iPhone continuing to take a disproportionately high amount of attention in the app ecosystem,” Sammy wrote.

Analyst Ben Thompson latched onto this idea in his own piece, arguing that Apple hasn’t done enough to help App Store developers build large, sustainable businesses, and has missed an opportunity to make the iPad essential through killer apps. He believes Apple is afraid of letting any single third-party app become too dominant on the iPad, in the way Photoshop and Office ruled the Mac in the 1990s. “The problem is that must-have apps are exactly what the iPad needs to become indispensable,” Thompson wrote.

While these arguments seem convincing–and the people writing them are sharp tech industry observers–they rely too heavily on anecdotes. When you look at the actual data, the iPad ecosystem looks healthy, with plenty of innovative apps. We pundits need something else to blame.

Same Old Rapid Growth

Since its launch in June 2010, the iPad ecosystem has made some major leaps, with 200,000 apps added in the last year alone. There are now 675,000 tablet-optimized apps in the store, and roughly 52% of all apps are optimized for the iPad as of this month. That’s the highest ratio of iPad-to-iOS apps ever; the number of tablet apps available for Android devices is a pittance by comparison.

The infographic at the top of this story maps out how fast the numbers of both iOS apps in general and iPad ones in specific have grown, along with year-over-year growth for both types of apps, and the percentage of all iOS apps which are available in iPad versions.

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It’s true that in raw numbers, there are more iOS apps than ever which aren’t available in versions optimized for tablet use, but that’s been happening since the launch of the iPad. Most developers will prioritize the iPhone because the audience is larger and usage is more frequent, but if anything, they’re targeting the iPad in ever-greater proportions.

But what about quality? Has the level of innovation in iPad apps has leveled off as developers put more resources into iPhone development? That’s trickier to gauge, but Apple at least has its own anecdotes to counter the ones that Thompson and Sammy put forth.

At last week’s iPad Air 2 launch event, for instance, we saw a demo of Pixelmator, a powerful image editing app for Mac that’s making its way to Apple’s tablet. Apple also called up the developers of Replay to show an app that automatically edits videos into montages, and we heard about how the iPad’s camera enables unique apps like Homestyler, Coach’s Eye, and Caribu. Perhaps there’s a specific itch that Apple isn’t scratching for some users, but that doesn’t mean the ecosystem is stagnant. There may be other reasons for the feeling of iPad malaise.

iPad Usage Realities

The truth is that most tablet users aren’t seeking out the kind of wildly creative apps that Apple loves to show off. They mostly just want to play some games, check Facebook, browse the web, watch some Netflix, and maybe do a few other small tasks before turning in for the night.

This isn’t not some recent trend stemming from a failed ecosystem. A two-year-old study by Flurry found that tablet users spend 67% of their app usage time on games. The next-most popular category is social networking with 10% usage, and entertainment with 9% usage. The remaining 14% is divvied up between utilities (4%), news (2%), productivity (1%), and “other.”

Even if there were more innovative apps like Paper and Pixelmator, that doesn’t mean people would pay attention. A recent ComScore survey found that 66% of mobile device users–that includes smartphones and tablets–download an average of zero apps per month, and on average, app users spend 79% of their time in just five apps. Sammy claims to have conducted a Twitter straw poll in which many people said they barely download iPad apps any more, but that behavior likely extends to the iPhone as well.

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The fact that some people are increasingly favoring their iPhones doesn’t mean the iPad ecosystem is broken. It’s just that people aren’t looking to do complex things on their touchscreen devices, and more of those people are finding that a phone is good enough.

A New Kind of iPad

None of this means that the App Store is flawless, or that Apple has no room to improve. Thompson’s piece even makes some great suggestions on how to make the App Store more hospitable for developers, including paid upgrades and a proper system for free trials. But ultimately, he’s calling for a better productivity app ecosystem, even though the users in Flurry’s 2012 study spend just one percent of their time on productive tasks.

There may be a chicken-and-egg situation at work, in which more people would use the iPad for productivity–and would therefore see the iPad as indispensable–if the apps were there to support it. Even then, the iPad itself would need to be better at productive tasks than a laptop, and it’s hard to see that happening without bigger screens and integrated accessories such as a full-size keyboard.

Maybe the long-rumored 12.9-inch iPad will open the door to new uses, but that seems like a different kind of device that won’t necessarily buoy the iPad in its current forms. Let’s see if that device arrives, and wait for actual proof that developers are ignoring it, before calling out the App Store as the problem.

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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