Skip to navigationSkip to content

The iPad will definitely, totally be the future of personal computing. Eventually.

Reuters/Stephen Lam
We’re not done with tablets yet.
  • Jean-Louis Gassée
By Jean-Louis Gassée

Editor, Monday Note

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Once upon a time, Apple led a simple life: one line of personal computers with a single operating system. As iPads fork into traditional and hybrid Pro models, Apple’s software life will become complicated. Count the OS variants: macOS, watchOS, tvOS, iOS for iPhone and iOS for hybrid iPads. And consider the consequences for the organization and culture.

According to Horace Dediu, the best way to understand Apple’s future is to listen to what Tim Cook and his team of senior execs say publicly. Remove the culturally mandated dose of rah-rah and what remains is a set of useful pointers.

As an example, at the All Things D conference in May 2013, Apple’s CEO says “I think wearables is incredibly interesting. I think it could be a profound area for technology.” Two years later, the Apple Watch is released. It’s a work in progress, but give the company’s smallest device more powerful hardware with the same battery life and the rest will follow: operating system software, more powerful apps, wireless performance, autonomy from the iPhone…

At the same conference, Cook insists that the TV “continues to be an area of great interest to us.” Last fall, we finally get an Apple TV with its own App Store. Granted, it’s even more of a work in progress as it depends on the byzantine world of content creators, rights holders, distribution agreements, and carrier shenanigans—and I’d like to have a quiet word with the individual who designed the Remote—but it’s progress, nonetheless.

With this in mind, consider Cook’s declaration last September: “The iPad is the clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing.”

Strong words given the current state of the iPad line. In his Jan. 27, 2010 presentation, even Steve Jobs seemed ambivalent about his latest creation, saying the iPad “had to find its place between the iPhone and the Mac.” Is Apple’s vision for the device any clearer today?

Apple has always led with bold moves. While some decisions weren’t well received at first, such as removing floppies and CD-ROMs, or switching to USB-C, the iPad was an immediate hit. Its irruption created a new genre and took off like no other product in computing history. In its early phase it grew three times faster than the iPhone did after its launch…but then the curve turned negative in 2013:

Provided by author

As I see it, three factors contributed to this surprising turn of events.

First, the iPad was too good. For many customers, the iPad is solely a content consumption device that lets you visit websites, check friends on Facebook, read books and watch movies, or make video calls to family members. The early iPads more than met these customers’ needs—no reason to upgrade to the latest model.

Second, and more recently, large smartphones and small laptops have stolen screen time from iPads.

But perhaps the most important factor is that for more demanding uses—like creating a moderately complex document—the original iPad proved to be a disappointment. As I attempted to explain in “The iPad Is a Tease“ (Apr. 2014)…

Despite the inspiring ads, Apple’s hopes for the iPad overshot what the product can actually deliver. Although there’s a large numbers of iPad-only users, there’s also a substantial population of dual-use customers for whom both tablets and conventional PCs are now part of daily life.

If we rewind the Apple Time Machine to 2009, we can see that the soothsayers’ tablet predictions were, for once, reasonable [emphasis mine]:

…the years of “Mac tablet” rumors are finally going to come true…except that the “tablet” will be closer to a super-sized iPod touch than a Mac laptop, and it will run the iPhone OS rather than the version of OS X running on your Mac.

(As an aside, I risked my own conjecture and foresaw a small device that would fit in the side pockets of men’s jackets. I was wrong, the first iPad announced in Jan. 2010 was larger, but the iPad mini, launched in Oct. 2012, fulfilled my yearning for a pocketable device.)

In retrospect, it should have been obvious: Running on iOS, the original iPad didn’t have a chance to live up to the PC-replacement delusion.

Today, iOS has evolved to remove earlier limitations, making the file system (more) visible and allowing users to work in more than one window. The iPad line has been split into two: the “traditional” consumer iPad, and the Pro with its Smart Keyboard and blasphemous Pencil stylus. (Recall how, in 2010, Jobs said “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” I’ll add that while the Pencil works better than other styli I’ve tried on both iPads and Surfaces, its lack of a magnet to keep it with its iPad is disconcerting, as if Pencil and iPad Pro developments hadn’t been well coordinated. And while we’re picking on details, the Smart Keyboard works well on a desktop, but not so much on one’s lap.)

The iPad line, now more complicated than iPhones or Macs, stands at odds with Apple’s tradition of elegant simplicity.

Does the current state of affairs belie Cook’s declaration that the iPad is “the clearest expression of our vision of the future”? A cynic would say yes, but I’m not so sure. If we take him at his word, Cook is telling us is that after years of deriding the dreaded “toaster/fridge,” hybrid tablet/laptop devices will become an important part of Apple’s future.

Considering the wide range of iPad uses, of Jobs To Be Done, one hopes Bernard Desarnauts, who provides solid smartwatch research on Wristly, could be convinced to shed more light on the evolving world of tablets, Apple’s and others’, simple and hybrid.

The iPad will almost certainly continue along two lines. As the consumer version (simply) matures, the Pro will evolve into a more powerful hybrid device thanks to the successors to today’s A9 processor. iOS will support that evolution and enable stronger third-party applications for office and media creation applications. In that way, Apple will cannibalize itself, something it has always welcomed.

Apple engineers should have no trouble adding brawn to iOS…but this muscular descendent might not be the best fit for iPhones. This raises a question: Will the iOS be forked into iPad and iPhone variants? The resulting OS lineup would be watchOS, iOS for iPhones, iOS for iPads, OS X (or macOS), and let’s not forget tvOS. Yes, they’d be related, but even in the best families, siblings fight.

Apple’s software life could become complicated, with consequences for its culture, its organization, and its agility.

This post originally appeared at Monday Note.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.

Popular stories