iPad sales are down, technically. Apple still sold 20 million of them last quarter, but Wall Street says a company like Apple is never supposed to sell less of anything. And so when Apple sells 4% fewer iPads in 2014 (and 18% fewer in Q4 than a year earlier), we get articles in Wired that declare it a “meh” product failing to excite us, and a tweet from our own tech editor Harry McCracken wonders if the tablet will wither away.
But Harry, my friend, there’s no need worry! Because while iPad purchases are down, iPad usage is still superb. People are reading books, watching Netflix, and surfing the web on their tablets, which, sales figures aside, should be the most important indicator of whether a product is really a “hit.” All that aluminum and lithium we ripped from the earth is actually going to use.
But the question looms–if people are using their iPads, why aren’t they replacing them as quickly as iPhones? The answer lies in the iPad’s design. You can call an iPad a big iPhone, but a big iPhone can last a customer a really long time.
Two years into owning an iPhone, and the thing needs to be charged every few hours. This is because lithium ion batteries are chemical systems that begin to decay from the moment they’re produced, and only lose their mojo as they’re charged again and again. So you’re more or less forced to replace your phone with that 2-year contract.
Yet my iPad of tech-ancient age always has a charge, largely because its battery is ~6x the size of an iPhone. In standby, its big, power-hungry screen isn’t eating away at that battery, either. So the result is that several years into owning the product, I’ve always got a few hours of charge in this thing, even when I haven’t charged it in a week or more.
Everyone I know has dropped and shattered their iPhone. Nobody I know has dropped and shattered their iPad. That’s anecdotal, but just look at the use cases–we shove our smartphones into every dark crevasse of our clothing and bags, then rip them out one-handed 150 times a day to be checked.
An iPhone has the usage burden of a piece of factory equipment. An iPad is a form we’re inherently more careful with–its combination of size and weight merit safer, two-handed use–and most of us aren’t using tablets nearly as compulsively as we use our smartphones. Plus, they’re just built like tanks. So two, three, four years into owning an iPad, it’s probably still in pretty good shape. Why replace it?
You’ve seen the keynotes–Apple is always doubling the speed and efficiency of their chipsets. The latest iPad is Usain Bolt to the original iPad’s random dude training for his first 5k. But that’s on paper. In practice, who cares? My old iPad streams Netflix fine. It’s my flawlessly functional hub for Rdio music, too. Web browsing. Email. None of these core applications require more power than we’ve already got. The only real exception would be the most demanding games in the App Store that more or less force users to upgrade. But all of the biggest games, by nature, come to the newest smartphones, too. And guess what? You’ve already got that new iPhone!
Seeing articles and tweets that lament that Apple or the iPad has lost its cachet are just silly. If we’re not excited about new iPads, it’s because we’re just not planning to replace our own any time soon–a phenomenon I’m betting the Android tablet manufacturers are experiencing, too. Tablets are a solved design problem. What update could you add to a lightweight screen in your hands that puts the world’s information at your fingertips?
But please, don’t take the tone of Wall Street when critiquing iPad sales. The platform’s waning sales are a testament to the design’s longevity–a longevity that sits in some unknown expanse between the disposable iPhone and the immortal television, refrigerator, or trusty old pair of jeans. Apple will still sell tens of millions of iPads in 2015. Its competitors will sell tons of tablets, too. Forrester analyst James McQuivey says the iPad is plateauing–and investors be damned, there’s no shame in a product reaching market saturation, so long as the customer is happy.
Let’s champion Silicon Valley for building something we don’t all need throw out every two years. Good design means something is used, not replaced.