Essays on Technology and Culture

The Tablet is Being Squeezed Out

Apple’s Q2 finances have come in. They have more money than God, apparently, so let us speak no more of it. The days of Apple being doomed to financial ruin are over, though there is something to scream about, I suppose: iPad numbers are flat to declining. But, this isn’t about market share, or profits, or even whether iPads are better than the tablet competition. It’s about whether tablets as a product—at least in mid 2015—are a worthwhile computing platform. Tablet sales, as a whole, are on the decline. Some say it’s because the refresh cycle for tablets is longer than it is for phones, and there may something to that, but I think it’s because the case for people to own a tablet hasn’t been fleshed out.

While folks like Federico Viticci can use the iPad as their primary computing device, he’s an outlier, and will be for a while to come. The problem is that the tablet as a form factor, is being squeezed from both sides: bigger smartphones that can do all the things a modern tablet can do, and thinner, lighter laptops that can do all the things a modern tablet can do—and more. [1] It’s an ignoble fate, but somewhat obvious in retrospect, for a device that was pitched as being in-between the smartphone and the PC.

iPad in-between

The smartphone offers better portability than a tablet, even if you’re talking a 7“ tablet and a 5.5” (ugh) phablet, along with always-on connectivity baked in without an extra data plan. A laptop offers desktop class software, a real keyboard that might not run out of battery before the computer does, and a familiar user experience. I cannot overstate the importance of that last feature. Many the tablet success stories are about kids and the elderly, groups who have not had a lifetime of experience with the traditional PC UI, be it Mac or Windows. Tablet UIs are simpler, and often easier, but do not underestimate familiarity—and laziness. If I’m already at my personal computer, why don’t I do the thing I could do on it there, instead of grabbing a second device? Even my parents, who are of the age where an iPad would be a perfect computer for them, opt to use their MacBook Air instead. When I visited them for the holidays, their iPad had been relegated to playing streaming radio in the living room.

Until someone finds a specific use case where a tablet is a better tool for computing tasks, for most people, it’s doomed to languish in this narrowing gap. I bought my first (and, so far, only) iPad in 2013. While I’m using it now to write this essay, I don’t use it for much beyond the occasional bit of long-form mobile writing with an external keyboard, and reading RSS feeds and Instapaper in the mornings over breakfast. The iPad has never wormed its way into my computing life as a better tool for what I want to do, only a different one. I don’t travel much, but when I do, I often take my iPad, because it’s easier to travel with than my Giant 15" MacBook Pro of Doom—I keep that tethered to a giant display on my desk. If I could get by with a single-port MacBook as my primary computer, I could see my iPad going off to Gazelle for good, and not bothering to replace it.

The tablet is quickly becoming the computer of the gaps. Something needs to happen to break it free, but what that is, I don’t know. It has to take advantage of the form factor in a way that cannot be replicated on the smartphone, and do it better than a small, ultra-light laptop. Side-by-side apps won’t be enough. Haptic keyboards won’t be enough. Thin, light, and long battery life will only go so far unless someone has a reason to reach for their tablet over their personal computer. There’s reasons for some people, but not reason for everyone. Only time will tell in that regard.

  1. I’ll ignore the laptop-tablet hybrids like the Surface, for now. I’ve not seen any evidence that significant numbers of people want them, but if anyone can prove me wrong, I’d like to hear it.  ↩