iPad: A Consumption Device, After All?

Via Daring Fireball, Neil Cybart writes:

When compared to the latest iPads, these first two iPads are simply inferior tablets with slow processors, heavy form factors, and inferior screens. But none of that matters with owners. This is problematic and quite concerning, suggesting that many of these tablets are just being used for basic consumption tasks like video and web surfing and not for the productivity and content creation tools that Apple has been marketing.

The Apple media has long been pushing against this narrative, and, in doing so, has helped shield Apple from much-needed criticism at a time when decreasing sales had not yet forced Apple to acknowledge that something was wrong with the iPad.

I wrote about this a while ago.

Cybart continues:

In reality, one reason sales momentum was slowing was iPad owners weren't upgrading their device.

I think this is a highly problematic argument. The fact that Apple is bringing this up shows just how poorly the iPad doing. If it is already relying on upgrade sales for a major portion of its sales, and sales are actually falling without upgrade sales, it is not reaching enough new customers to maintain growth. That's bad.

The PC market relies on upgrade sales. The plastic spoon market relies on upgrade sales. The pants market relies on upgrade sales. But a device as young as the iPad should not be relying on upgrade sales to this degree. If Apple thinks that the iPad's sales are falling because of a long upgrade cycle, the implication is that the iPad has already reached a large portion of all people it's ever going to reach.

By selling a device that is truly designed from the ground-up with content creation in mind, the iPad line can regain a level of relevancy that it has lost over the past few years. In every instance where the iPad is languishing in education and enterprise, a larger iPad with a 12.9-inch, Force Touch-enabled screen would carry more potential.

Better hardware would help, but I think it's very important to acknowledge that the thing standing in the way of productive work on the iPad is not its hardware. It's iOS.

iOS is a cumbersome system for even reasonably complex productive tasks. Apple has started fixing the window management problem, but there’s still the document management problem1 (most real-world tasks involve multiple documents from multiple sources — there’s pretty much no way to organize and manage document from different applications in iOS), and the workflow problem (many real-world tasks involve putting the same document through multiple apps, which iOS is still not great at, albeit getting better).

And then there's the fact that few developers are willing to invest a lot of money into productive apps on the iPad. They are expensive to create, the market is small, and Apple's handling of how apps are sold on its devices does not instill confidence.

The thing that's preventing people from using the iPad productively is not the small screen, it's the operating system.

Right now, for most of its users, the iPad is a consumption device. It's not a PC replacement, and it's not really much better than a phone for gaming or watching movies or reading. That puts it into an awkward position. But it doesn't have to be. There's no reason the iPad couldn't replace most PCs in people's homes, and be better than those PCs at most tasks people currently use PCs for. No reason — except for Apple's lack of willingness to make the iPad into that device.

Further Reading

Khoi Vinh:

While I largely agree with his thoughts on the importance of new, differentiated hardware, Cybart doesn’t address what for me is the more critical issue: the fact that so little software innovation has happened on the iPad since its debut. Until recently, Apple’s approach has been to closely tie the iPad’s operating system with the iPhone’s, a decision that has contributed directly to consumers really being at a loss for why they need to own these devices.


Writing about this topic is difficult, because the response is predictable. It's often along the lines of "but I use my iPad for productive work", or "I have replaced my MacBook with an iPad." I'm completely honest when I say that I think this is fantastic. If it works for you, that's awesome. You're using the right tool for your job, which is what all of this is about.

Of course, the people writing these things are often, well, writers. It's true that there are plenty of Markdown text editors on the iPad. If that's what you do, then the iPad is a great tool for productive work.

But we should also acknowledge that, if you go visit most normal people who use iPads, it's sitting on their kitchen table or sofa, being used as a web browser or TV guide. If they have to create a "please help me find my lost cat" poster, or scan and archive the tax documents their bank sent them,2 they do it on their PC. I'm sure both of these things could be done on an iPad, but if it's harder to do on an iPad than on a Windows PC, why bother?

And, down the road in three years, when they need to replace their PC, are they going to replace it with a better iPad, or are they going to stick with their current iPad (which works fine for browsing the web) and buy a new Windows laptop? If their friends ask them how much they like their iPads, are they going to say "this is amazing, I can do so much on it, and it's much easier than my PC", or are they going to say "it's a great web browser, if you need that?"

That's why iPad sales are falling.

Unlike Apple writers, normal people don't have an incentive to invest weeks into figuring out how to work around the iPad's limitations, and moving their work tasks there. So until Apple makes this easier for them, they won't.

I'll end this with a quote from Federico Viticci's article, which I think is exactly right:

But back down to Earth for a moment. For all its advances, the iPad is still surprisingly not suited for common computing tasks such as downloading files with a web browser, attaching documents to an email message, and referencing two distinct files or pieces of information at once while doing something else. And I could go on, mentioning the inability to listen to a video in the background and the primitive state of iOS' media player (essentially unchanged since 2010), the astounding limitations of Apple's Mail app compared to its Mac counterpart and the lack of innovation in the system Calendar – but I'll save these thoughts for another article on iOS.


Apple's challenge for the next five years of iPad is to clarify whether this device is a portable screen for specific tasks or a general computer in a portable form factor. And if it can excel in both scenarios without losing its way. Apple needs to design the iPad so that its everyday computing nature also facilitates highly specific tasks and use cases.

  1. Fixing this problem does not mean "giving access to the file system." When I say that Apple needs to fix document management, people sometimes assume that I'm saying that they should bring something like the Finder to iOS. I'm not. The Finder approach to file management is broken. It was designed for a time when people had a tiny number of apps, and almost no storage space. That time doesn't exist anymore, and neither should the Finder. ↩︎

  2. These are two real-world examples of "productive" tasks normal people do that I've seen in the last two months. ↩︎

If you require a short url to link to this article, please use http://ignco.de/720

designed for use cover

But wait, there's more!

Want to read more like this? Buy my book's second edition! Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web is now available DRM-free directly from The Pragmatic Programmers. Or you can get it on Amazon, where it's also available in Chinese and Japanese.