Essays on Technology and Culture

Doom, Gloom, and iPad Sales

Did you hear? iPad sales have dropped again. Clearly this means that the iPad—if not the entire tablet industry as a whole—is doomed. As Jason Snell, an iPad fan, put it, “[P]erhaps I’m kidding myself, and in the end the iPad will be small niche product, an outsized iPhone accessory.” Sure, Apple’s probably not going to sunset the darn thing, but five years in, and clearly the iPad style tablet is not the future.

Or, you know, maybe the doomsayers are overreacting. Here’s an interesting measure. In 2014, the iPad accounted for 70% of all tablet web traffic, at least in North America. I can’t find statistics for 2015, but I see no reason to assume that number has changed much. People have iPads, and they use their iPads. It might not translate to upgrade sales, at least not yet, but any product with that much of a share in its market can’t be a complete failure, let alone doomed.

Back in November, I suggest that the iPad of 2015 was the Mac of 1990. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but let me expand on it a bit. The original Macintosh was a brand new idea of what a computer could be [1], and formed the foundation of modern computing. It was revolutionary, it had passionate users who stuck with the platform during Apple’s mid–90s doldrums, but PC users until the mid–2000s considered it a toy that couldn’t be used for real work. (I should know. I was one of ’em.)

In the same way, the iPad is a brand new idea of what a computer could be. It has its passionate users who are sticking with the platform during the sales doldrums, but hardcore traditional computers users often think of it as a toy for writing iPad reviews. Episode 154 of the Accidental Tech Podcast lays out the counter case against the iPad as a device for real work. Sure, people like Marco, Casey, and John can’t do their programming jobs on an iPad. That doesn’t mean you never will be able to. I’m certain in the next couple years, we’ll see some sort of iOS development environment on iOS, if only because I suspect Apple’s on iOS app developers would love to write iOS apps on iOS.

But as long as Apple continues to develop it, the iPad should become a powerful enough computing platform to replace the Mac for most people.

Ask yourself if you can do all your work on a Macintosh II, or even a Mac 512k. The answer is probably going to be no, but that’s fine—they don’t make those anymore. Now ask yourself if you think you’ll be able to do all your work on the iPad of 2025. The answer to that is almost certainly yes. We just have to wait until then.

To go back to the Mac for some historical parallels—Apple sold the Apple II along the Macintosh for almost a decade. It took until the early 1990s for Macintoshes to outsell Apple IIs, and the product line was finally discontinued in 1993. I don’t think we can expect to see the Mac discontinued that soon, but history does serve as a guide here.

I’d love to have some Macintosh sales numbers to use for illustrative purposes here, but I can’t find them. Either way, maybe we should look past the numbers for now. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to just ask people for a little patience as the iPad develops into a fuller-featured platform. And when it does, maybe the sales will finally start going up again. Was there this much doom and gloom about the Macintosh in the late 80s?

  1. Okay, not new. The idea goes back to The Mother of All Demos, and the MacOS was based off of research from XEROX Parc. Either way, the Mac was the first real computer like this to make it to market.  ↩