The case for the iPad’s long-term future

Based on both individual anecdotes of purchased iPads lying fallow around the house and Apple’s recent announcement that iPad sales were essentially flat year over year, some are predicting that the iPad is not the future of computing that has been predicted.

I’m not quite willing to make big predictions about computing overall, because I really hate being wrong and there’s no real benefit here in being right, but I couldn’t be more confident in the iPad’s future, and it’s not an argument that I’ve heard widely.

TL;DR: The iPad already has great successes, and just by itself those will do well. Most of our apps and workflows haven’t been rebuilt from the ground up for the iPad, though, so we’re not getting the best from it. And there is a great market opportunity in the millions of iPads that are underutilized, and the first app developers that crack that market by playing to the iPad’s strengths will make it big and create an even bigger pull for the iPad through those successes. If you love a computer, the iPad’s not for you, but it’s definitely for someone.

Longer version:

First, let’s look at where the iPad is successful. And I don’t mean, let’s look where it’s purchased; I mean, let’s look at where its users actually get fantastic usage out of it. If this usage is small and meaningless, it doesn’t mean the iPad is meaningless, but it does limit past data in usefulness for predicting the future. But if that success isn’t meaningless, it points to possibilities.

It’s absolutely true that the major use cases for the iPad are in consumption, not production. Weirdly, the vast majority of what humans do, in general, is consumption and not production. I receive 230 emails a day and send 30, on average, so an iPad that was 10x better at managing incoming mail than sending new mail might work better for me than a laptop (depending on how I rate its relative strengths).

People have found the iPad is great for watching videos, reading — books, magazine articles, comics, twitter, and more. People dismiss the iPad for this — “consumption isn’t as important” — but the reality is, your laptop sucks at consumption. Reading magazines or books, watching TV, and reading twitter are all pretty much crap on the laptop compared to the iPad. Yes, you can do it; no it’s not as good.

So, if the iPad were just relegated to being the best enabler of consumption, I think it would do pretty well, since it would also leak over to not-quite-consumption, like trawling the internet for great pictures to post to Pinterest. This might not be the super-exciting future, but I think it’s still a better business than I could think of building.

Beyond consumption, though, there’s another big area it’s doing well: Replacing computers for people who don’t have computers. I’ve personally given away about 15 iPads (this is just for personal stuff; I’ve given away more for work, including 12 of the very first iPads to all the employees I had at the time), and for most of those, they didn’t have a computer, and for most of *those*, they now don’t need one. Of course, many of the iPads were to young kids, aged 5-10, by those kids will get most of the benefits of a computer without needing the complexity of a full computer.

It’s not just kids, though; my dad could use the computer he shared with my mom, but he never embraced it. He has been literally emailing me weekly about how giddy he is to go to a coffee shop and write email on his iPad. He didn’t feel comfortable doing this with the laptop, but he loves it now. He’s by no means the only person I know who either doesn’t own or doesn’t use a laptop because they now have an iPad.

Everyone who needed a computer already has one, but not everyone has a computer. Many of those who don’t need a computer also don’t need an iPad, and maybe a smartphone is perfect for them; but the group in the middle, who don’t need a laptop but for whom a smartphone isn’t sufficient, could really thrive on an iPad.

Just these two successes are a great business, if not necessarily a 100% growth business indefinitely. But there’s a lot more.

The next thing that gives me confidence in the iPad is how few of our tools have been rebuilt to work with an iPad workflow. Most of what I try to use on the iPad is an attempt at porting either iphone or laptop apps. That can work, but it won’t automatically. I often use a keyboard for my iPad, but essentially nothing has good keyboard shortcuts, for instance; I would never tolerate this in a laptop app, but it’s not really a choice on the iPad (for now).

I don’t know what it will take to rethink my critical apps and workflows to work on the iPad, I just know it hasn’t been done yet. And yet, even without that, it’s literally my favorite computing device by a mile. I use my phone constantly. My laptop is a workhorse. But I love my iPad. Every time I pick it up I can feel the future of computing just fighting to get out. There are so many little bits of my iPad life that need to be shaved, molded, tweaked, cut, poked, prodded, or beaten to a pulp; when that happens, we’ll be in a whole new world.

The world just hasn’t been creative enough yet to figure out how to take advantage of what the iPad can do. Remember: This thing is only a few years old. It might be 10 years before we really figure it out. That’s not an iPad failure, though; that’s a market failure. There’s a lot of creativity yet to do.

It’s that market failure — which I feel keenly every time I pick up my iPad — that really closes it for me. The iPad has an amazing future because there are fifty million people who pick up an iPad with hope in their hopes, dreaming of the awesome things this can help them do. Today, too many of them are disappointed with the answer. But tomorrow, they’ll pick it right back up again, with hope in their eyes once more. In the mean time, Apple will continue to sell a ton of iPads. Maybe it will only *cough* be twenty million a quarter or whatever, but that’s still a big market.

I am very confident that that market opportunity will push people to invent new ways to excite those users. Yeah, everyone’s currently trying the obvious, stupid stuff: “Hey, let’s just make a crappy html5 version of our web app” or “Hey, let’s just upscale our iphone app”. That’s not really working. Something, however, will work. Imagine the iphone if Loren Brichter hadn’t gotten ahold of it and invented and created as much as he did. You can’t force that, but with enough people trying, and enough clear demand, it’ll happen, and it’ll change the way you use your iPad.

I hear a lot of people say the big barrier is cross-application communication, but I think a lot of that is trying to copy the strengths of the laptop to the iPad, which might not be how the iPad comes into its own. You don’t use your phone to do things you used to do on your laptop (at least, not primarily); why would you use your iPad for that?

I’m not sure what strengths of the iPad will come to the fore in a way that makes it its own device, but I have some ideas.

As an example, people totally undervalue the fact that it doesn’t go to sleep. Just comparing email on an iPad to a laptop, there isn’t a great email client for the iPad yet that I have found (and trust me, I’ve looked; I’ve got at least seven mail apps installed on my phone), but I like a lot of the core email experience on the iPad dramatically more.

Most of the time I check my email I’ve got about 15-30 minutes. My goal is to delete, send to my task list, or reply to as many emails as possible. With my laptop, I either need to leave it at my desk all day, or when I open it I have to give it some time to find wifi (or get an IP from ethernet), then download all of my mail. This could take 30 seconds, but with Mail.app (don’t ask), it could also take 15 minutes. Yes, it would be better with gmail, but it wouldn’t be instantaneous.

Let’s compare that to the iPad. It’s always on. It’s always online, because I’ve got an LTE chip in mine (I’ve had every version of the iPad since the very first, and every one with a mobile modem since they supported them). So, I open my iPad, boom, all the mail is right there. No wait, no IP acquisition, not downloading mail. Done.

Let’s take this to the extreme case: I often travel with just the iPad, and I use it in ways I couldn’t use a laptop. I get on a plane, put my iPad into airplane mode, and when I’m aloft I start processing email (with a keyboard). The email is right there, already downloaded, ready to go. When I land, I turn off airplane mode, and the email just sends; no work for me.

The same work on my laptop requires that I sit down at the terminal, pull out the laptop, pair it with my phone or iPad (or gamble on the airport wifi), wait the who-knows-how-long until Mail.app syncs with gmail, then put everything away. When I land (having probably done slightly more work in the 1.5 hr flight I usually take), I have to do the same thing: Find a chair, open the laptop, pair with device, wait until the 20-50 emails I wrote on the flight get sent. I’ve spent a long time on the freeway with my laptop open and connected to my phone, trying to upload mail.

Total iPad win. The laptop might support this at some point, but it’s just not built to literally be online 100% of the time. This plays to the strengths of the iPad, and will be hard to import anywhere else.

What else plays to this strength? I think there are tons and tons of areas that could benefit from being online 100% of the time, and you can see most of Apple’s development work is in improving this so apps can stay open more, download more often, be more up to date, etc. If my iPad evolves so that every app on it always has its content up to date, but I can never build a mixed-media blog post, well, I would take that trade.

Just think about the iPad-specific interfaces and experiences that have built. Hmm. There aren’t a lot. I know of some that have tried, like iPhoto, but many of them have been not so great. The only ones I can think of that really work are the app-switching moves: Four finger swipe for app switching (which works poorly because I can never figure out how the device orders the apps), and the five-finger app close gesture. For a completely new device and form factor, that’s not much real innovation in interaction.

The point, though, is I don’t need to know what happens next. I just have to be confident that the market opportunity of tens of millions of underutilized iPads in the hands of excited people who have proven they’ll spend money on technology will draw enough experimentation that we’ll get to see the true innovation. This is a young product, and it’s a product that’s sufficiently similar to others that people haven’t really let it grow into its own. There’s enough money and interest in the system, and enough truly awesome parts of the iPad experience, that I’m absolutely confident it will.

Too many people are saying the iPad is a dud because they’re a computer user and their usage doesn’t translate well to the iPad. They’re not approaching the experience with a beginner’s mind, and are instead saying, “I know it’s a new device, but it should do exactly what the old one does.” One of the commentators on the Accidental Tech podcast seems to have set “create a mixed media blog post” as the critical success criteria, but I bet less than 1 in 10000 computer users, if that, ever actually need to do that. Even when I blog, I just do straight text. Hell, I probably include more code snippets (well, used to) in my posts than pictures, but I’d be crazy to make that a requirement, because I understand the iPad’s market isn’t me.

To that commentator, I would recommend they go read Innovator’s Dilemma. Disruptive technology is rarely used by the users of the old technology. The laptop, or desktop, or whatever, makes you happy. Great. The iPad’s not for you. It’s for people who don’t need what you need, and are satisfied with a much simpler solution with some kinds of power that are greater, and the reduced complexity is a critical part of its success. (Really, read Innovator’s Dilemma.)

And seriously, if you’re getting an iPad, and you can afford it, get it with an LTE chip. It dramatically changes the experience. I couldn’t live without it. And don’t say I can tether it. Not at all the same.

My recommendation is, don’t ask what it would take to cause you to switch to an iPad. Ask what you aren’t doing today that you’d like to be able to do. Ask who isn’t using a computer and could be. Ask how the world will change when every device and every app is online all the time. Wonder what kind of gestures will dramatically increase the power and intuitiveness of the iPad. And see if you can’t come up with an app that will make those fallow iPads just that bit more sexy.