Apple’s iPad problem is a real one—here are four suggestions for fixing it

About those iPad sales…
About those iPad sales…
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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Apple is expected to unveil its latest iPads tomorrow at an event in California. According to leaks, the new tablets look almost identical to their predecessors. Barring any surprises, they’re not likely to relaunch iPad sales, which, after a huge start, have recently flattened.

iPad sales growth chart

The iPad—which defined the entire tablet category—has become a real question mark for Apple. During four of the past five reported quarters, iPad sales have either declined or been flat over the prior year. For comparison, the iPhone has never had a down quarter on a year-over-year basis, and continues to grow.

Apple iPad and iPhone shipments chart

There are several headwinds going into 2015 and beyond. For instance, to some extent, iPad sales may be slowed by larger, more capable smartphones, both from Apple itself and rivals like Samsung. Also, iPad app development seems anemic—Apple’s big Newsstand push, for instance, has been a dud. And many big developers have either avoided the iPad altogether—there’s no iPad-specific app for Instagram, for example—or given their apps only modest updates over the years (see Twitter).

While phones will continue to be the most popular “personal computer” devices for the foreseeable future—with wearable devices perhaps growing into second place—Apple’s tablet business nonetheless looks like a problem worth solving. A few things the company could do to play more toward the iPad’s strengths:

  • Emphasize that iPads and tablets are more likely to be shared devices than entirely personal, and make iOS better for sharing. This has already started—Apple recently debuted Family Sharing in iOS 8—but it should be easier for multiple people to share iPads, toggling between their personal settings, accounts, and media.
  • Create larger iPads. This also is supposedly underway already—Bloomberg reported that Apple is working on a 13-inch iPad for next year. This could enable more serious productivity apps, or at least be more engaging on the living-room couch.
  • Focus on what people are really using tablets for, especially relative to other mobile devices. According to comScore, that’s generally movies, gaming, and kids/youth content. What’s Apple doing to make those experiences even better? Why doesn’t the iPad already have stereo speakers for widescreen-movie mode, for example? Is there something Apple could do to make iPads even better suited for kids?
  • Try harder in the corporate market. “I suspect iPad sales to the enterprise may represent a growing share of iPad sales,” long-time (pseudonymous) Apple watcher Sammy the Walrus IV writes. “In this context, Apple’s recently announced partnership with IBM takes on a new light—one of offense to find use cases for iPad.” The iPad has taken on some interesting, unconventional “enterprise” roles, ranging from retail point-of-sale devices to airplane cockpit companions. Surely there are more opportunities here.

Big picture, iPad sales are unlikely to sharply accelerate again or collapse any time soon. It’s probably more important over the next year for Apple to nail the Watch than to generate incremental iPad sales. But long-term trends still favor the iPad and tablets over things like desktop PCs—so it seems a business that easily merits Apple’s continued investment.