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Now About the Alleged Reasons for the iPad Sales Slowdown

There has been no end of speculation as to why iPad sales, once soaring, are down slightly this year. True, Apple has recorded tens of millions of sales of the first truly successful tablet computer, but are the glory days over?

Aside from the reasons why this might be so, it’s unfortunate that the industry analysts who tally sales lump an iPad, which starts at $249 for the first generation iPad mini, with cheap media tablets that may sell for as little as $50, perhaps less. It’s fair to say those devices are little more than toys and thus shouldn’t be taken seriously for media consumption or for productivity. But if the goal is to minimize the success of the iPad, that strategy is a success.

Now comes a report from IDC claiming that Apple has surrendered the iPad’s stellar lead in U.S. education to those cheap Google netbooks known as Chrome-books, which can cost maybe $200 or so. Now the reasons why this is a misleading — if downright false — claim are complicated, but they are well-defined by investigative journalist Daniel Eran Dilger in a piece he wrote for AppleInsider that sharply criticizes a Financial Times article. As you can see from the article, Daniel reveals that, rather than being hugely successful, total Chrome-book sales are but a fraction of those of the iPad.

It starts with the apparent disconnect between the headline, “Google Overtakes Apple in the US Classroom,” which Daniel claims is actually contradicted in the article itself. The figures used indicate that Apple is slightly ahead, but even that is misleading.

As Daniel states, “Based on IDC’s reported numbers, Apple’s U.S. education sales of Mac and iPads were not only larger than the corresponding, combined shipments of Android and Chrome OS products, but the ‘slight lead’ Apple had over Google was a margin 172.6 percent greater than the unit differential that Garrahan and Bradshaw directed attention to in their article.”

Are you dizzy yet?

Long and short of it is that the only area where Chrome-books have shown any traction, with global sales still somewhere between two and three million a year depending on which study you believe, is education. But remember that Chrome-books are little more than small note-books using a web-based OS with very few apps. I suppose that might be good enough for simple tasks, and Google’s online office suite is certainly useful for writing homework assignments and such. But Google doesn’t offer the breadth of apps that you can get on an iPad. Indeed, Apple has hundreds of thousands of tablet-optimized apps at the App Store. A Google tablet has very few. Most just scale up poorly from smartphone apps with few enhancements to exploit the larger displays.

Worse, the media, as usual, takes the IDC figures as gospel without evaluating the study in search of possible complications or omissions. A recent Macworld article — and Macworld is owned by the same parent company as IDC — quoted the figures about the iPad’s fall in U.S. education without a single critical comment. It hasn’t been disputed, for example, that over 90% of the tablets used in classrooms are iPads.

So why the sales stall?

Well, it doesn’t appear that there’s anything wrong with iPads, or that Google tablets are demonstrably better. Clearly when it comes to the app ecosystem, Google Play is far inferior, even if the total number of Android apps are roughly compatible with the totals in the App Store.

Perhaps the key issue is the upgrade cycle, and the fact that the iPad is still a new player in the enterprise, not to mention education. While a deal with a Los Angeles school system to deploy iPads fell apart, and politics may be to blame, Apple is still pushing to have iPads put in students’ hands. The new deal with IBM means that tens of thousands of IBM Solution Providers will be marketing Apple mobile gear with special vertical apps to businesses. The potential, which won’t be realized till some time in 2015, appears to be huge.

So how often do people upgrade their tablets? It’s nowhere near the traditional two-year upgrade cycle of smartphones. It appears to be somewhere between a mobile handset and a personal computer, maybe three or four years. Businesses particularly may have an original iPad or iPad 2 and see no reason to upgrade. If the apps they require still work, it makes sense to hold onto the investment for as long as possible.

But that’s true for home users as well. While a new iPad may come into the home, the older models will simply be handed down to other family members. There’s also the iOS 8 factor. The iPad 2 is the oldest supported model, and it’s generally known that performance suffers noticeably compared to iOS 7. That might be a true incentive to replace these iPads three years after release. Time will tell whether the new models present a credible upgrade opportunity.

It is also apparent that the iPhone 6 Plus is cannibalizing some iPad sales, for people who don’t want to have to lug around two devices when one, a compromise to be sure, will suffice for many purposes. I expect iPad mini sales will suffer the most, which may explain why the iPad mini 3 didn’t change very much from last year’s model, except for Touch ID and a better camera. Apple even stayed with the A7 chip.

No doubt iPad sales for the December quarter will be most revealing. If sales increase by a decent amount, and growth is sustained moving into 2015, the critics will be forced to change their tune. If sales decline or remain flat, I suppose second guessers will have more ammunition to complain. And then there are the rumors of an even larger model, the iPad Pro, which may come next year. But how many people want to buy a 12-inch tablet, or does it become a viable MacBook Air alternative?