Most of you know that I’ve long had mixed feelings about tablets. I’ve tried several iPads, and while my wife will never be without one, I’m inclined to rely on my note-book or iPhone when traveling. At home, it’s a 27-inch iMac — I’m currently reviewing Apple’s 5K version — and an iPhone. I’ve tried and tried to get accustomed to the iPad, but other than helping my wife solve a problem, or learn a new skill, I don’t use it very much. After writing my initial review of the iPad Air 2, my wife has agreed to complete the process.
So news that tablet sales are in cooling mode doesn’t come as a surprise, though I’ll get to the reasons in a moment. Meantime, some useful holiday stats have come out. One is the claim that iPad sales will decline from 74 million, in 2013, to 68 million this year. It’s still credible number, but it doesn’t necessarily show a favorable trend.
Another survey, from a data research firm known as Flurry, as reported in USA Today, claims that full-size tablet activations declined from 17% last year to 11% this year. It appears such phablets as the iPhone 6 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 are picking up the slack and then some, with activations increasing from a mere 3% two years ago to 13% today. But I suspect a lot of those increases this year are due to the presence of the iPhone 6 Plus. So if Apple loses an iPad sale, and sells you an iPhone 6 Plus instead, that means higher profits. It’s really good news, even if an Apple fan would like to see iPad sales increase.
Before I go on, these figures aren’t confirmed by Apple. Actual numbers won’t be released until later this month. The figures being published now are merely estimates, which means there’s room for error, and the difference between a slight decline and a slight increase might just fall within those margins. So let’s be cautious and consider whether the surveys were done by firms with a track record for accuracy. That’s not often the case for companies that do industry or data analysis, but they are seldom called out on the carpet for their mistakes. There are no licensing standards for an industry analyst, so if you declare yourself to be one, and get loads of contracts, you are successful regardless of how well you can actually do the work.
In saying that, though, I won’t dismiss the possibility that the best iPad sales were in the past, and that Apple needs to develop its tablet strategy further to find the best markets and uses for the device. Remember that, before the iPad arrived, the year of the tablet never came. Microsoft kept touting it, and it didn’t happen. While some suggested the iPad was little more than a grown up iPod touch, and I suppose there was reason to hold that opinion, it did seem to find a willing market for a while.
Indeed, people who were uncomfortable around a traditional personal computer, either Mac or PC, seemed to love their iPads. They are certainly suitable for reading a book or watching a movie or TV show. After a fashion, they are capable of different forms of productive work. Using a finger or a stylus is certainly one way to do graphics work, and an accessory keyboard would seem to turn an iPad, or any tablet, into a credible replacement for a note-book.
Or perhaps not.
Remember that the note-book is a single integrated device, and some have touchscreens, though dual-purpose boxes aren’t terribly successful. An iPad is made to be used by itself with the touchscreen. There are add-on keyboards, but most appear to make clumsy substitutes for a genuine note-book. Microsoft markets the Surface Pro 3 against a MacBook Air, but the tasks for which a keyboard is preferred are far better accomplished on the MacBook Air. Embedding a keyboard in the cover is a compromise, useful in a pinch but not necessarily for heavy-duty writing on an extended basis. But I’m sure some will disagree.
I’ll admit my experiences with iPad keyboards are somewhat limited. I have one from Logitech on hand, an Ultrathin designed to work with an iPad Air 2. It works all right, but the connection to the iPad, held in a thin slot, always seems tenuous. I’ll try some other keyboards to get a better sense of how well they work; one is due from Touchfire shortly.
My problem is very likely that I am somewhat of a creature of habit at this stage in my life. While I enjoy trying new things, the experience has to be quite compelling for me to change my ways. That hasn’t happened with the iPad yet.
Part of that may be due to the fact that I have a workflow that depends on apps that aren’t yet available on an iPad. Some of them might be, and I will certainly give them their due. But I also have to manage fairly large audio files on a regular basis, and interaction with an iPad’s file system to put radio shows together isn’t near as easy as on a Mac, with the help of a valuable utility, Default Folder X. As it stands, each 10-minute segment takes me 15 minutes to perform a quick touch-up in an audio editing app. It’s rarely any longer. If I could be as productive on an iPad, I’d be willing to consider the alternative.
Long and short of it is that, if iPad sales continue to stall, Apple will have to look not just at the upgrade cycle, obviously far longer than a smartphone, but at ways to make them more indispensable to your digital life. A lot of what an iPad can do may be accomplished perfectly well on an iPhone, except for tasks that benefit from the larger display. Apple’s deal with IBM may put more iPads into the enterprise, and that may compensate for slack sales elsewhere. And then there’s the rumor of a larger model sporting a display that’s over twelve inches, which is being referred to as the iPad Pro.
But this is a story that’s still being written, and the iPad may indeed still be in search of reasons for more people to buy one.
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