The iPad’s Identity
A few days ago, tech publicists and Apple fans celebrated 10 years of the iPad original announcement. While there are many people who stated that iPad changed their lives and became their favorite computing device (I’m one of those people), there have been some critical voices as well. Two pieces stood out to me in particular — “The iPad Awkwardly Turns 10” by John Gruber and “The Tragic iPad” by Ben Thompson.
John Gruber’s criticism is fairly straightforward. His key thesis is that the iPad has become too complex and confusing, especially for casual users. Gruber argues that with the introduction of iPadOS last year, Apple added a bunch of advanced features like split view, which are very confusing in terms of UI, and those functions are not obvious to users. Essentially, Gruber says that by becoming a more complex product and moving closer to the Mac, iPad has lost its way as an easy-to-use, intuitive content consumption device — something that it used to excel at.
Over at Stratechery, Ben Thompson makes a different point by focusing on the business side of the iPad’s software ecosystem. By introducing GarageBand — an app uniquely tailored to iPad — and selling it for just $5 (and later making it free), Apple set the low bar for apps monetization and sent a message to the developers that they can’t make good money by selling advanced iPad apps. The App Store race-to-the-bottom pricing issue has been brought up by Thompson many times — with iPhone, developers simply can’t ignore it due to its sheer popularity, and hope to profit by making up in sales volume, however with iPad, there is way more risk as the platform is less popular. Developers, Thompson argues, are fundamentally not incentivized to experiment with inventing innovative use cases for iPad as they can’t make money off it.
Those two pieces focus on different aspects of the iPad criticism, but the points made might share the common foundation — both writers essentially question the iPad’s identity. What is the iPad’s place in the ecosystem of Apple’s platforms, and what is its unique differentiation? While I would argue both with the UI-related points made by Gruber, and — to a lesser extent — with the business model points by Thompson, I believe that Apple indeed struggles with defining the iPad’s identity and telling its story.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010, he clearly positioned it as a unique device that sits perfectly in between the iPhone and the MacBook. The list of use cases on the presentation slide made sense — iPad was indeed the best product for watching video, reading books, browsing, and other things. At the time, iPhone was significantly smaller and less capable, and MacBook was way more complex (and more expensive). 2010 was the year of iPhone 4, the device designed to use with one hand — it had a tiny 3.5-inch screen which was good enough for reading emails and glancing at pictures, but was not nearly as fitting for video or browsing, as the vastly bigger iPad. The iPad’s positioning and identity was spot on, and it resulted in the blockbuster sales out of the gate.
But then things changed. In many emerging markets (particularly in Asia), smartphones were the only computers for many people, and those customers naturally wanted to use them for the growing variety of tasks. Small screens became limitations, and many Android vendors started to ship “phablets”. Apple followed the trend and made iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, and since then the iPhone screen sizes have been only growing. Suddenly, the iPad didn’t look that much of a differentiated device anymore — yes, it still had a much bigger screen than any smartphone, but iPhones became good enough for most of the use cases Steve Jobs originally envisioned for the iPad — video, reading, browsing, and many more.
Clearly aware of this, Apple realized that the way for the iPad to keep its distance from the iPhone was to give to it certain use cases that were previously reserved for the Mac. This was done in two steps: first, the iPad Pro with a much bigger 12.5-inch screen was released in 2015, and then in 2019, Apple debuted iPadOS, an OS designed just for the iPad (as opposed to both iPad and iPhone) and focused on iPad-unique features such as split-screen and file system. It even has Sidecar — a feature meaning that all the iPad can be is just a second screen to your Mac. It’s obvious that Apple believes making the iPad a “Mac lite” is the way forward for the product. Even the recent beta of iPadOS 13.4 adds features such as extended keyboard customization support — features meant for users who would like to use their iPads as Mac alternatives.
Here is the problem, though — by moving away from its original niche (now mostly invaded by the iPhone) and taking on the Mac use cases, the iPad has left the starting point but hasn’t really reached the destination, thus stuck in a void of being a device that’s already too niche and complex for the smartphone-first masses, but still too limited and punishing for the traditional laptop users. Outside of diehard iPad fan base, it appears that the number of unique things, or things that iPad can do better than any other device, has been actually shrinking lately, not growing. Today’s iPad marketing essentially boils down to two key messages — “it’s more portable” and “it’s cheaper” (than the laptop). But iPhone is even more portable, and price is never an exciting use cases differentiator.
This is the unifying base of criticism from both Gruber and Thompson — the iPad is losing its identity. The problem is not with the confusing multitasking UI — it’s with the fact that split view exists as the feature that Apple believes makes the iPad differentiated. The problem is not necessarily with developers not making unique iPad apps for fear of not making money — it’s them not understanding which unique use cases they can bring to the iPad, that they can’t bring to the iPhone or the Mac.
It would be unfair to say that the iPad does nothing unique at all — there are use cases where it’s still totally different — or better — than either the iPhone or the MacBook. GarageBand is one example — the multitouch controls and the big screen give the ability to play virtual instruments in a way you can’t on any other device. Drawing with Apple Pencil is another. But even those few totally unique iPad’s differentiation points could be at risk as we are moving towards foldable devices. If your iPhone five years from now would unfold into something with a massive touch screen, how would iPad compete with it then?
Perhaps the iPad’s differentiation and uniqueness is indeed a myth? Perhaps iPad is forever stuck in this limbo of skepticism and self-uncertainty — somewhere in between “it’s just a large iPhone” and “it’s just a crippled MacBook”? After all, technically, it’s exactly that today — a larger screen device, powered by almost exactly the same hardware as the iPhone, and a very similar software, and limited by those hardware and software when it comes to laptop use cases. The competition is skeptical too — many Android vendors have all but abandoned the premium, differentiated tablet utopia whatsoever, and Microsoft essentially stated with the Surface that tablets should be just smaller, more portable laptops.
Or is the Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products, as declared by Phil Schiller and described by Neil Cybart, a head fake for the iPad? Maybe instead of moving from point “iPhone” to point “MacBook”, the iPad needs to move on a totally different axis to carve its unique path? Apple TV, while being a product for the biggest screen in our house, is not just “an even bigger iMac” — it’s a totally different device with a different input method and UI paradigm. Apple Watch is the smallest screen we carry, but it’s not just “a tiny iPhone” — with health sensors and voice control it can, and already has, become something different. What kind of hardware, sensors, software, UI paradigms can Apple uniquely introduce just to the iPad — something it can’t bring to the iPhone or the Mac — to help it find its new identity?
There are many intriguing use cases you can envision that would uniquely leverage the iPad (for the foreseeable future). The big screen can be the foundation of a completely redesigned multitouch UI paradigm that could leverage simultaneous multi-finger, pressure-sensitive interactions. Apple Pencil could become more than just a drawing tool — it could be the primary paradigm of interacting with all content. The Pencil could even become your personalization and identification device — imagine pasting a file from your iPad to your colleague’s by just touching their screen with your Pencil. Imagine the two of you drawing a chart on one screen using both of your Pencils simultaneously. I’m sure Apple has lots of great concepts in the labs — as long as they believe the iPad should be something else than just a “Mac lite”.
Only time will tell. Perhaps one day when we are discussing the uniqueness of the iPad, we would not think “bigger”, “more portable” or “cheaper” — instead, we would think “different”.