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Can Apple Breathe New Life Into The iPad?

Five years after reinventing the tablet market, the iPad has grown stale while the competition keeps innovating.

Can Apple Breathe New Life Into The iPad?
[Source Photo: courtesy of Apple]

I don’t know about you, but I’m in desperate need of some new gadgets. My 2011-era MacBook Pro just doesn’t pack the same punch when I’m editing video, and the battery of my screen-shattered (and now tiny-feeling) iPhone 5s feels like it barely lasts a few hours before needing a charge. My phone contract is up and I’m ready for whatever Apple announces on Wednesday.

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But one device I’m not dying to upgrade is my iPad. Sure, a new one would be speedier, but my now-three-year-old tablet still does what I need it to do. And to be honest, the features that have been added to subsequent versions of the iPad have all been predictably iterative: a better camera here, a faster processor there. Touch ID. Subtle exterior changes. These are important details, but nothing wildly innovative.

That might be about to change. This week, Apple is expected to make its biggest change to the iPad lineup since 2012’s iPad Mini: The iPad Pro is rumored to sport a 12.9-inch “monster” display and more potent chipset, while inching closer to the laptop market with a keyboard and a stylus. It’s a big shift in form factor, but still not something that inspires me to rush out and spend even more of my money.

I’m not alone in my lack of enthusiasm. Tablet sales in general started slowing down pretty hard last year–and 2015 isn’t looking that much better: Sales of such devices are only expected to grow 8% this year, according to Gartner. The iPad is Apple’s only major product line that’s seeing its sales shrink: In the most recent quarter, the company reported an 18% drop in iPad sales year over year, topping off a quarter-by-quarter decline that started at the end of 2013. Youch. Whatever happened to the “magical and revolutionary device” that Steve Jobs so proudly held up on stage in early 2010?

One major difference between 2010 and 2015 is the competition: Apple pretty much invented this category as we know it. But it now faces a small army of hardware manufacturers building tablets running Android and Windows 10. Most of the early so-called “iPad killers” were easily laughed off as unpolished wannabes, and the competition has matured quickly. And more often than not, the alternatives are cheaper than the iPad. And they’re only getting cheaper: Amazon is reportedly working on a $50 tablet to supplement its line of Kindle Fire devices.

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Apple still leads the shrinking tablet market, but that lead is getting smaller: According to IDC, Cupertino now commands only 25% of the tablet market worldwide as competitors like Samsung, Lenovo, and Huawei slowly fatten up their respective slivers of the pie.

To some extent, the sheer number of competitors and their often lower price points naturally make it harder for Apple to hang onto a huge percentage of the market. On top of that, tablets in general now occupy an awkward space between fully functional laptops and smartphones, the latter of which have had a growth spurt pushing many models closer to the size of mini-tablets in recent years. Why buy an iPad Mini when the iPhone 6 Plus isn’t that much smaller? Do tablets even make sense anymore?

When you factor in all of these forces, it’s understandable that the iPad has seen its fortunes decline. But at the risk of riling up the most dedicated Apple devotees, perhaps part of the reason the iPad is losing its edge is simply because it’s not evolving quickly enough. Maybe it’s starting to go a little stale.

Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro

Where No Tablet Has Gone Before

Last week, I sat in the conference hall of a Manhattan hotel as Lenovo unveiled its latest devices ahead of the IFA conference in Berlin. At the briefing–a tiny gathering compared to the crowd Tim Cook will wow on Wednesday–Motorola’s design head Jim Wicks told an off-the-cuff story that seemed more significant than he likely realized. One day after school, his young daughter and a friend were busy with homework. They quickly became distracted by a device sitting nearby. The tablet, Lenovo’s recently announced Yoga Tab 3 Pro, is a fairly typical-looking 10-inch Android tablet with one less-than-typical feature: It has a built-in projector that can beam a 70-inch image onto any surface. The girls became transfixed with the device, mesmerized by how easily they could project their work (and any other content) onto the wall, and wound up playing with it for hours.

Obviously, Wicks is biased, not to mention professionally obligated to hype up his employer’s products. But the story he told, which seemed unscripted, described something you don’t see or hear about very often these days: somebody being genuinely and enthusiastically excited by a tablet. And it’s no wonder: That feature sounds awesome. Imagine laying in bed with a tablet and effortlessly projecting a movie onto the ceiling of your bedroom. Or sharing a presentation in a work meeting with a few taps and clicks without having to call IT.

There are, of course, other examples of tablets that sport unique, innovative
features. The Dell Venue 8 7000 is a super-thin Android tablet that has a stereoscopic 3-D camera built in. The Sony Xperia Z4, like some smartphones on the market, is waterproof. The Asus ZenPad has an optional cover that adds 5.1 surround sound to the device. Other manufacturers, like Lenovo, are focusing more on building superior audio into their tablets, recognizing that these devices are used heavily for streaming movies and TV.

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Then there are hybrid tablet-laptop devices, like the Dell XPS 18 or Microsoft Surface. By merging the productivity and horsepower of a laptop with the portable convenience of a tablet, devices like these make traditional tablets seem underpowered and less necessary.

Apple knows this, of course, and that’s exactly what the iPad Pro is all about: trying to capture more of the tablet market share by appealing to our lean-back-and-consume side and our get-things-done side all at once. Will it be enough? We’ll find out in a future Apple earnings call. In the meantime, the competition isn’t wasting time innovating, packing on new and useful features that could eat into the iPad’s shrinking marketshare if Apple doesn’t step up its own innovation game.

Eventually, my iPad 3 is going to kick the bucket. Unlike my phone or my laptop, it’s not something I know I’ll need to replace. We’ll see. A 12.9-inch monster iPad sounds cool and all, but I’m personally content to invest in an actual laptop while this category of devices figures itself out.

Related: The History of Apple in Under 3 Minutes

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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