How the iPad Became Apple’s Most Gloriously Successful Failure

Just how important — or irrelevant — has the iPad been to the evolution of mobile technology?

The iPad Pro at an Apple store in Shanghai on January 12, 2020. Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images

10 years ago, the internet was abuzz with speculation that Apple was about to unveil a new tablet computer. And I, for one, was super excited about it. I couldn’t just sit back and wait for its arrival. I spent many hours reading people’s hopes and predictions regarding what the new device might be like. And when the iPad finally arrived, I wasn’t disappointed.

Mobile computing before the iPad was basically crap. Laptops couldn’t be used away from a wall socket for very long, as you’d be lucky to get two hours of use out of the battery — even when it was brand new. And, despite the name, you couldn’t really use a laptop on your lap for more than a few minutes. It would literally burn your legs.

But then came the iPad. And that wasn’t crap at all.

Utilizing a highly-efficient ARM processor, a power-sipping display, and a non-Windows operating system, the iPad offered a genuine 10 hours of battery life, even though it weighed only a fraction as much as a typical laptop. And unlike laptops, it ran silently and vibration-free, because it had no need for either a fan or a hard drive.

It offered a paradigm shift — a true revolution in mobile computing.

And then there was all the fun and user-friendliness of its touch-based interface, which could be customized for each individual app. It was so simple and intuitive to use that toddlers and Grandma could use it without requiring any training. Even your cat could use it — as witnessed by numerous YouTube videos.

There had been some tablet computers before the iPad, but hardly anyone bought one. And the iPad made them look comically archaic.

The iPad wasn’t just an improvement on previous mobile computing products. It offered a paradigm shift — a true revolution in mobile computing.

Nevertheless, when Steve Jobs first unveiled the iPad on January 27, 2010, there was no shortage of people with scathing criticisms to offer. It didn’t have Flash. It wasn’t widescreen. It wasn’t a “proper” computer. There was no multitasking. It was just a big iPod touch. It had a silly name. In some people’s eyes, the iPad was little more than a gimmick that almost no one would have any real use for.

So yes, the reception was decidedly mixed. But sales were huge and grew rapidly.

Jobs was right. The naysayers got it wrong. The iPad was a great product and a huge success, right from the start. And, with its many updates and improvements, the iPad remains an excellent and still very profitable product to this day.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the success of the iPad meant the original criticisms of it were all entirely unfounded.

Boom and bust

Despite tremendous initial success, with blistering sales growth for several years, it wasn’t long before iPad sales began to decline, even as sales of the iPhone — launched three years earlier — continued to climb. iPad sales peaked at 26 million units over the 2013 holiday quarter, before rapidly declining to about half that level by the end of 2016, where they finally stabilized (thanks partly to price cuts).

To a considerable degree, this sales decline was actually a sign of success and quality. People didn’t feel the need to replace their iPads on a regular basis, because their old iPads still worked just fine. And Apple should be applauded for that.

It is also true, however, that concerns that were voiced by critics at the time of the iPad’s launch, have resurfaced — and have, to some degree, proved prescient.

Don’t misunderstand me. In general, the iPad’s original critics were wrong. They were wrong about Flash. They were wrong about the screen proportions. They were wrong in all sorts of ways.

Some of their criticisms, however, sort of became true over time. They identified issues which, though not especially relevant at the time, have become relevant due to subsequent market developments.

Competitor companies and the web itself have been forced to adapt to the mobile revolution that Apple themselves initiated. And this has changed the market landscape in ways not always favorable to the iPad.

“Hardly anyone actually needs an iPad”

The underlying criticism aimed at the iPad, right from the beginning was that it is an in-between device that serves no particular purpose.

You have a smartphone for when you are out and about. And for “serious work,” you switch to your laptop or desktop computer. For gaming, you use a console or a PC. You don’t actually need the iPad.

This fundamental criticism was essentially true. But it was also largely irrelevant. People didn’t need an iPad. But they wanted one — badly. They did find it very useful. And they often preferred using their iPad to using a phone or a laptop.

Steve Jobs, being the tech visionary he was, had already thought hard about this issue long before the iPad was launched. And he accepted that there needed to be a clear gap between phones and laptops, or there would be little point in the iPad existing.

People didn’t need an iPad. But they wanted one — badly.

And Jobs, being Jobs, wasn’t satisfied with the iPad as merely a compromise device between a small-screened smartphone and a too-heavy laptop. So he only launched the iPad once he was convinced there were at least some things it was better at than any other device. And at the top of his list of “some things,” was browsing the web.

Jobs believed that the multi-touch browsing experience offered by the iPad would be preferred to the browsing experience on any alternative device.

Consequently, when some people criticized the iPad, suggesting there was no room for a third category of device between smartphones and laptops, Jobs disagreed. He thought there was. And, at the time, he was right and the critics were wrong.

However, if you were to apply that same criticism today, you’d have a fair point — because the gap between smartphones and laptops has shrunk very considerably in the 10 years since the iPad was launched.

So what’s caused the iPad gap to shrink so dramatically?

Why didn’t the iPad eventually reign supreme?

There are two key reasons that are widely appreciated: the ubiquity of large-screen phones, and the improved mobility of modern laptops.

When the iPad was first launched, the latest iPhone was the iPhone 3GS, which had a 3.5-inch screen and was therefore not great for browsing the web. Yes, for the benefit of younger readers who are reading that in disbelief, that’s not a typo. The screen did indeed measure just 3.5 inches from corner to corner.

And while the original iPad weighed just 1.5 pounds, the top-selling laptop in January 2010 weighed almost six pounds.

This left a gap that was plenty big enough for the iPad. Unlike laptops or phones of the time, the iPad was both light enough to be carried around comfortably and had a large enough screen for its users to be able to browse the web in comfort.

Today, however, “oversized” phones are the new normal. The iPhone 11’s six-inch screen is not especially big by today’s standards. But it is still a whopping 147% bigger than the screen on the iPhone 3GS. And lightweight laptops with all-day battery life are now commonplace.

The iPad, therefore, has been seriously squeezed from both sides.

There’s another major factor in play, however — one that often goes unmentioned: The dramatic evolution of the web in response to the smartphone revolution.

Today, by necessity, almost every major website is adapted for ease of use on a smartphone. But this wasn’t the case at all when the iPhone was launched. And it still wasn’t the case when the first iPad was released.

Websites on smartphones were frequently clunky — and often unusable. Website creators catered mainly or even exclusively for large screens — often barely even giving a thought for people browsing on their phones.

This contrasts with today, when many website creators adopt a mobile-first strategy. And being at least mobile-friendly is pretty much mandatory. Indeed, many websites are actually less clunky on a phone than they are on a desktop — as they are often simplified, with fewer ads and less clutter than is fed to desktop users. And for an even more streamlined experience, you can often ditch your browser and use a specialized app.

Arguably, this evolution of the web to be phone-friendly is a bigger change than the development of the giant smartphone. Even giant phones would be poor at browsing the web, if the web had not undergone its own revolution to accommodate smartphone browsing.

So: larger phones. Lighter, more efficient laptops. A more mobile-friendly web. Put all these factors together and you have a situation in which the gap between phones and laptops is far smaller than it was when the iPad was first introduced.

“It’s not a proper computer”

Another major criticism of the iPad was that it wasn’t much good as a work machine. It lacked multitasking, mouse support, and a built-in keyboard. And it couldn’t run Windows-based software. To get serious work done, you’d probably have to switch over to your laptop or desktop.

Nevertheless, the initial success of the iPad sent laptop makers into panic mode. They worried that tablets might almost entirely displace laptops as most people’s primary work tool. But it was not to be.

It’s true that the iPad has become very significantly more capable from a work perspective. It is a proper computer by any reasonable standards. But it has always been limited in its capacity to seriously compete with laptops as a work machine for two main reasons.

The iPad as a work machine

The first reason the iPad can’t compete with laptops as work machines is that while a touchscreen-based interface is marvelous for casual browsing, casual gaming, and media consumption, it’s usually a vastly inferior substitute for a mouse and keyboard for most work-related tasks. And you’re basically just fighting against physics when you try to prove otherwise.

The second reason is that Apple’s efforts to push the iPad as a laptop replacement were only half-hearted anyway. Apple, under Tim Cook’s leadership, is a very conservative company. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the top executives at Apple didn’t really push the iPad as a fully functional laptop replacement, because they didn’t want to risk the iPad cannibalizing their own, extremely lucrative MacBook sales.

Sure, they’ve repeatedly reminded us that the iPad can be used for productivity tasks, but they’ve avoided giving it the functionality it needs to fully take over from a laptop. Specifically, they’ve failed to give it the full mouse support that would be essential for this task. They do want you to buy an iPad for work — but they want you to buy a MacBook too.

And so, today, the default position remains that people who need a computer for work generally rely on a laptop or a desktop. And when they’ve got a laptop and a big-screen smartphone anyway, there’s usually no point in having an iPad.

The iPad has been a very successful and profitable product, but it hasn’t sustained its place in most people’s tech inventories. It remains a useful entertainment device in many circumstances. It isn’t going to disappear any time soon. But has its existence been fundamental to the wider development of mobile technology? Probably not.

You could argue that the iPad revolutionized mobile computing by changing our expectations of what a mobile computing device ought to be capable of — and thereby pushing the development and improvement of smartphones and laptops. But it may well be that these developments and improvements would have occurred anyway.

It was the dominance of the iPhone that led competitors to develop large-screen phones, as a way of avoiding direct competition with the smaller iPhone. And with the modern iPhone being able to run all day, despite having desktop-class processing capabilities, it was probably only a matter of time before people demanded that their laptop should be able to do the same.

In the history of computing, the iPad may turn out to be little more than a blip — an exciting blip and a very profitable one for Apple, but of relatively little importance in the grand scheme of tech history.

The iPad hasn’t replaced the laptop. And it hasn’t killed off Windows. But perhaps it could have done both?

What the iPad could have been

Could a different approach from Apple have brought about different results? Was this a huge missed opportunity? Could a much bolder, more daring strategy have brought about the seismic shift in the computing market that the iPad once threatened? These are very interesting questions — but also questions that may deserve an in-depth article of their own.

The iPad certainly isn’t a complete failure. It may have failed to reach its full potential, but millions of individuals — kids, grandmas, and cats included — will have happy memories of the time they spent on their iPads.

Maybe the iPad is now surplus to requirements. Maybe it will never amount to a serious work machine for the masses. But it’s always been a fun device, regarded with affection by those who’ve owned and used it. And perhaps that’s all it needs to be.

Tech Fan, Philosopher, Economist and Basic Income advocate.

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