The iPad: The Missing Feature

January 22nd, 2015

Next week, the truth will be out there about how well Apple did during the holiday quarter. Already there’s plenty of speculation, supposedly based on independent sales surveys, that iPhone sales were off the charts. Based on preliminary estimates from IDC and Gartner, both notorious for undercounting Mac sales, Apple did pretty well moving Macs.

But what about the iPad?

That’s a huge question mark, and the estimates indicate a drop, perhaps a substantial drop. IDC claims there’s been a “massive deceleration” in tablet sales around the world. I’ll get to the possible reasons in a moment, but Fortune magazine reports that iPad sales estimates range from 16.3 million to 25 million. Compared to last year’s sales of 26 million, the average is 21.5 million. That’s a loss of 4.5 million or 16.9%. But even the most optimistic projection indicates a slight loss.

Obviously the final figures will come from Apple, along with an explanation why iPad sales are flat or declining, assuming that’s what really happened. While analyst estimates are all over the place, not all use crystal balls or Ouija boards or pull answers from a dark place. So some of these estimates may be close to the mark based on surveys, informal and otherwise, of dealers, distributors and so on and so forth.

Clearly all the excitement for Apple was centered on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. With unexpectedly high sales in Asia and elsewhere, Apple is going to have a winning quarter regardless of how the iPad fares. In fact, I haven’t heard much about iPads of late, so maybe the product is just accepted, or has lost some of its luster. But it’s not the lack of apps or a compelling product. Clearly the iPad Air 2 is a surprisingly substantial upgrade compared to last year, and anyone who is considering a tablet need go no further. There are just no interesting ideas from Android and other platforms, other than reports Samsung and other companies are doing even worse.

But the question arises as to what Apple might do to make the iPad a more compelling product. Has it reached its potential for consumers yet? What about the enterprise? With Apple working with IBM to market mobile gear to businesses, it may well be that lots of iPads will be sold anyway. If not last quarter, certainly during 2015.

So can Apple do something that’ll make businesses lap them up? I mean they are used by airline pilots, point-of-sale setups, and for some luxury cars as a way to deliver those huge owner manuals in a friendly fashion. But when it comes to conventional productivity functions, such as word processing, the iPad tends to be clumsy. Certainly Office for iPad is well done. Microsoft hasn’t even delivered a similar solution for the Windows mobile market yet. But basic editing chores are difficult.

While I realize some of you have become quite fast typing on glass, there are those external keyboards. I’ve tried one or two, but they tend to be a little on the clunky side compared to just using a note-book, such as a MacBook Air. But they do work in a pinch, and thus it’s possible to write and edit lots of text on an iPad.

But there is still a key feature that is lacking, and it makes document creation of any sort extremely awkward. It’s all about multitasking. Even though Apple has done clever things to enable various types of multitasking on iPhones and iPads without consuming too many resources, what about the ability to run open more than a single document window on the same screen? You could do that in the 1980s on Macs with even smaller displays, so what am I missing?

Considering such features have appeared on the Android platform means that Apple is running behind the curve here, particularly for anyone interested in real productivity, and not just an occasional editing chore confined to a single document or application.

I realize there have been rumors that side-by-side multitasking was supposed to be introduced in iOS 8, likely for the iPad, but it never came to be. I wouldn’t presume to guess why, other than not being able to optimize the feature for good performance, or maybe the roadmap calls for a later introduction in iOS 8 or perhaps it’s being held for iOS 9

Perhaps Apple has declared a standard-sized iPad ineligible for such multitasking. I can understand an iPad mini with a much smaller display, but not the 9.7-inch model. Or perhaps Apple is considering potential tentpole features for a possible larger iPad, an iPad Pro with an over 12-inch display. But even if such a beast arrives, it wouldn’t make sense for Apple to restrict such a feature to a product that probably won’t get near as many sales as the smaller iPads.

Now I do not pretend to understand Apple’s marketing plans for the iPad going forward. There may be things in the works we can only dream of. Sure, declining iPad sales are a bummer for them, although that’s more than covered by sales of the iPhone and Macs. Perhaps the Apple Watch will count for a reasonable amount of revenue, particularly if customers are into gold smartwatches.

I may not be an avid iPad user, but I see unfulfilled possibilities, and letting me put multiple documents and apps side-by-side would be a great deal maker. How about it Apple?

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2 Responses to “The iPad: The Missing Feature”

  1. Kaleberg says:

    I remember the original Mac. The first version did not have multitasking. You had to start and quit, start and quit, and with floppy disks this was tedious. When the non-Apple provided Multifinder came in, it was great, but the screen was so small one was usually looking at one window at a time. You had to carefully leave a corner of the other window poking out so you could click on it. It wasn’t until the late 80s that the Mac had Apple provided multitasking (as an option one could enable), utilities that would make it easier to switch applications and larger screens to almost make it worthwhile.

    The iPad is in a similar situation. The screen is small. You really want to give each app the full screen. Drag and drop can be awkward with touch since there is no button to press and hold. You need a drag mode different from the basic manipulation mode, and that means you need a way to switch modes and so on. Look at how you have to touch and hold to enable drag mode to shuffle app icons. Still, it is not clear that side by side or inset applications are the solution to the real problem of working with multiple applications.

    The current situation seems hopeless. You can switch from app to app by using a four finger slide, but it is clunky. If nothing else, you never know what app is next door. You can use a double click to get the app selector, but this is awkward as well. A better solution might be to have a dock on the left or right, the top and bottom having been taken by notifications and the control panel respectively. You could slide out the dock and have a vertical list of app icons for easy switching. Perhaps dragging something to the dock would let you drag it through to the desired app. As with the Mac OS dock, you could place individual apps in a predictable order, but all recent applications would be available.

  2. John says:

    I’m not sure about side-by-side multitasking. I might prefer a picture-in-picture approach. I can see taking notes or similar while watching a video or viewing content on a website.

    For me there are two missing iPad features. First, I’d like to see a higher resolution digitizer in the screen This would make the use of a stylus for taking notes or for sketching much better.

    Second, I’d like to see a built in mechanism to allow the attachment of third party lenses. This doesn’t have to complex. If they just add a steel ring around the lens then you could attach lenses with magnets. There should also be a cylinder with a notch to align the lens to the optical axis of the camera.

    I don’t expect most people to use this but it would be great for business and industrial applications. You could attach a macro lens to photograph small parts or samples. A collar would let you photograph through an optical microscope. A 2x or 4x lens would be good for documenting objects at a a distance.

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