This week has been a strange one for tech giant Apple. On the one hand, it released results for the holiday quarter and reported an incredible $92 billion in revenue, with $22 billion in profit. That is, to use a technical term, bananas.
On the other hand, it also celebrated the 10th anniversary of the iPad and, surprisingly, even some of the company's most dedicated fans seem to think the device has been something of a disappointment. Apple cheerleader John Gruber, who usually ardently defends the company, feels the iPad simply hasn't evolved. Noted analyst and former Apple employee Ben Thompson called the iPad not a failure, but rather a tragedy: something that hasn't and never will live up to its potential. It's an odd contradiction: the iPad has sold nearly half a billion units and produced billions in revenue and profit, and yet there's this lingering sense that it's been a weird sort of dud — wildly popular and disappointing all at once.
That's because according to these critics the iPad was supposed to revolutionary — to have the same kind of impact on the world as the iPhone. But what the criticism misses is that the iPad's impact was always going to be less obvious and more implicit — and it still represents the future of computing.
The critiques rest on the fact that the iPad remains in this strange in-between spot, neither laptop replacement nor pure content consumption device. Gruber in particular paid attention to the sorry state of multi-tasking on the iPad — that using it as a primary computing device is confusing and less efficient than a traditional computer.
That's certainly true for now. But perhaps it is just that lack of definition that defines the iPad's success. For one: look at the laptop since the iPad was released in 2010. Every significant advancement made in laptop technology and design owes a debt to the iPad.
There are first the iPad-like hardware changes: all-day battery life, a shift to no moving parts, instant-on, and of course, touchscreens (though, notably, not on Macbooks). Then there are new software additions like a spot for notifications, or the introduction of tablet apps on laptops, which have made operating systems more and more like a tablet or hybrid device. Everything that has made modern laptops so vital and so resilient exists because of the iPad.
Then there is the existence of hybrid devices themselves. First dismissed by Tim Cook as a kind of "toaster fridge" combination no-one needs, everyone including Apple now agrees that a device that combines some of a tablet and some of a laptop is the way forward. Microsoft's Surface line, initially a flop, recently posted $2 billion in revenue for the quarter. Apple's own iPad Pro is creeping toward essential status as slow, steady improvements make it more and more usable. Meanwhile, every major PC manufacturer has their own take on the tablet-laptop hybrid. For a device that's just a disappointment, that iPad seems to have upended the industry nonetheless.
That's not to say the criticisms are unwarranted. Rather, this situation is a product of the tablet not yet finding a particular grammar of its own — an interface and a hardware model that truly works for the tablet's in-between status. Nothing is more emblematic of this problem than tablet keyboards, where even the most elegant solutions are awkward at best.
But perhaps the iPad cannot have the impact of the iPhone or the Mac because it was never supposed to. A tablet is, after all, in its DNA a hybrid of the large screen of the laptop and the interface of a smartphone. It was always going to be more influential than revolutionary.
It's possible that may yet change. Each revolutionary piece of tech ultimately needs its own logic of how you interact with it. The desktop has a mouse and keyboard, the laptop has a trackpad, and the touchscreen is the perfect interface for the smartphone. But the tablet is still searching for what I believe is its ideal manifestation — some better, more efficient solution than the clunky iPad Pro keyboard attachment or the detachable keyboard on the Surface line that simply doesn't feel quite right.
Still, it remains hard to argue that the iPad is anything but an unqualified success. For one, hundreds of millions of people are using them right now. More importantly, even more people are living in its shadow and under its influence, whether they or know it or not. That seems like a clear win to me.
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