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The iPad: The Missing Feature

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?