The Failure of the iPad

Two days ago, ZDNet published this article: Meet the iPad, your work computer: These 10 apps make real productivity possible. These kinds of articles, where writers explain how they use their iPads productively, musicians talk about how the iPad is truly a professional tool, or painters show how they use the iPad for professional illustrations, are published regularly. There's probably a new one every week.

Isn't that weird?

The iPad is now ten years old, and people still have to write articles about how, no, really, you can do real work on an iPad!

In 1994, ten years after the Mac was originally introduced, I got my first computer, a Performa 450. Nobody wrote any articles about how, actually, real work on a Mac is possible. Everybody who had a Mac used it for real work.

There was no need to write articles about how you could use Macs for real work, because for Macs, it was - and still is - actually true.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, he introduced it as a productivity device with an "entirely new user interface." He called iWork on iPad "magnificent." Schiller came on Stage and showed off Keynote, Pages, and Numbers.

Jobs called the iPad a car, and proclaimed that, for most people, it would replace the PC, the truck of the computing world. It would usher in the next era of personal computing.1

Somehow, Apple managed to snatch a glorified graphics tablet from the jaws of the next era of personal computing.

Part of the problem is the iPad's operating system.

The fact that it is based on Apps as first-level objects, instead of files, is what hurts it most as a productivity device. An App-oriented user interface works well for playing games, browsing the web, and answering an email once in a while, but real work is typically file-centric.2 Even just writing an article means that you have collected sources like PDFs or links, images you want to include in your article, maybe spreadsheet files that contain data for a graph you want to show, a (hopefully versioned) text file for the actual body of your article, and so on.

This works great on a Mac, which presents a file-centric user interface, but on an iPad? It doesn't.

Another problem is multi-tasking, and interoperability between apps. It's still difficult to move data between apps, and to see multiple things at once, or switch between them.

There are other problems with the OS, but honestly? I don't think any of those are what truly hurt the iPad.

The thing that truly hurts the iPad is the App Store.

When the original Mac came out, it didn't have multitasking, either. But it also didn't have an App Store. There was no gatekeeper deciding what was allowed on the Mac. So when Andy Hertzfeld wrote Switcher, he knew that he could sell and distribute it.

Who is going to write something like Switcher for the iPad? Nobody, because it can't get on the App Store, so it can't be sold.

Who is going to write a real, truly integrated file manager for the iPad? Nobody.

Who is going to invest a year - or more - into creating an incredible, groundbreaking new app, the killer app, the desktop publishing equivalent for the iPad? Knowing that Apple could (and probably will) just decide to not put in the App Store, destroying all of that work?


Why does this matter? It's not that the iPad is a bad device, or that it is a problem that it only works for work-related tasks for a minority of people. But I do think that the iPad is a missed opportunity. PCs are too complicated, and the iPad could have been the car to the PC's truck.

But Apple's decisions prevented it from becoming that.

  1. Some people take exception with the word "failure" in the title of this post. To be clear, when I say "failure," I mean it in the context of this section of the article: Apple wanted the iPad to be the PC for the rest of us, and it failed to achieve that. Clearly, the iPad is making Apple money, so it's not a failure in that sense.
    If you still want to yell at me about this, feel free to join the lovely people of hacker news↩︎

  2. I do get that there is real work that is not file-centric. The context we're talking about here is the one Jobs introduced, the one where the iPad replaces the PC, or at least surpasses it as the primary computing device for work. Pointing out that pilots use iPads for pre-flight checks is technically correct, and that is real work, but it hardly qualifies as being "the car of the computing world." ↩︎

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