ipad

The Sweet Spot On Apple’s Racket

 

iPad sales are falling – but the sky is not. We’re merely dealing with a healthy case of expectations adjustment.

The tablet computer has always felt inevitable. The desire to harness the power of a computer in the comfortable form of a letter-size tablet with a keyboard, or perhaps a stylus for more natural interaction — or why not both? — has been with us for a very long time. Here we see Alan Kay holding a prototype of his 1972 Dynabook (the photo is from 2008):

Alan_Kay_and_the_prototype_of_Dynabook,_pt._5_(3010032738)

(credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynabook)

Alan prophetically called his invention a personal computer for children of all ages.

For more than 40 years, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and captains of industry have whetted our appetite for such tablets. Before it was recast as a PDA, a Personal Digital Assistant, Steve Sakoman’s Newton was a pen-based letter-size tablet. Over time, we saw the GridPad, Jerry Kaplan’s and Robert Carr’s Go, and the related Eo Personal Communicator. And, true to its Embrace and Extend strategy, Microsoft rushed a Windows for Pen Computing extension into Windows 3.1.

These pioneering efforts didn’t succeed, but the hope persisted: ‘Someone, someday will get it right’. Indeed, the tablet dream got a big boost from no less than Bill Gates when, during his State of The Industry keynote speech at Comdex 2001 (Fall edition), Microsoft’s CEO declared that tablets were just around the corner [emphasis mine]:

“The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I’m already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. It’s a PC that is virtually without limits — and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.

Unfortunately, the first Tablet PCs, especially those made by Toshiba (I owned two), are competent but unwieldy. All the required ingredients are present, but the sauce refuses to take.

Skip ahead to April 2010. The iPad ships and proves Alan Kay right: The first experience with Apple’s tablet elicits, more often than not, a child-like joy in children of all ages. This time, the tablet mayonnaise took and the “repressed demand” finally found an outlet. As a result, tablets grew even faster than PCs ever did:

PNG - Tablets Fastest Ever

(Source: Mary Meeker’s regular Internet Trends 2014 presentation, always long, never boring)

In her 2013 report, Meeker showed iPads topping the iPhone’s phenomenal growth, climbing three times faster than its more pocketable sibling:

PNG - iPad 3X iPhone Meeker 2013

(Source: Mary Meeker Internet Trends 2013)

There were, however, two unfortunate aspects to this rosy picture.

First, there was the Post-PC noise. The enthusiasm for Android and iOS tablets, combined with the end of the go-go years for PC sales, led many to decree that we had finally entered the “Post-PC” era.

Understandably, the Post-PC tag, with its implication that the PC is no longer necessary or wanted, didn’t please Microsoft. As early as 2011, the company was ready with its own narrative which was delivered by Frank Shaw, the company’s VP of Corporate Communications: Where the PC is headed: Plus is the New “Post”. In Microsoft’s cosmos, the PC remains at the center of the user’s universe while smartphones and tablets become “companion devices”. Reports of the PC’s death are greatly exaggerated, or, as Shaw puts it, with a smile, “the 30-year-old PC isn’t even middle aged yet, and about to take up snowboarding”.

(Actually, the current debate is but a new eruption of an old rash. “Post-PC” seems to have been coined by MIT’s David Clark around 1999, causing Bill Gates to pen a May 31st, 1999 Newsweek op-ed titled: Why the PC Will Not Die…)

Both Bill and Frank are right – mostly. Today’s PC, the descendant of the Altair 8800 for which Gates programmed Microsoft’s first Basic interpreter, is alive and, yes, it’s irreplaceable for many important tasks. But classical PCs — desktops and laptops — are no longer at the center of the personal computing world. They’ve been replaced by smaller (and smallest) PCs — in other words, by tablets and smartphones. The PC isn’t dead or passé, but it is shape-shifting.

There was a second adverse consequence of the iPad’s galloping growth: Expectations ran ahead of reality. Oversold or overbought, it doesn’t matter, the iPad (and its competitors) promised more than they could deliver. Our very personal computers — our tablets and smartphones — have assumed many of the roles that previously belonged to the classical PC, but there are some things they simply can’t do.

For example, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Tim Cook confides that “he does 80% of the work of running the world’s most valuable company on an iPad.” Which is to say Tim Cook needs a Mac for the remaining 20%…but the WSJ quote doesn’t tell us how important these 20% are.

We now come to the downward trend in iPad’s unit sales: -2.29% for the first quarter of calendar year 2014 (compared to last year). Even more alarming, unit sales are down 9% for the quarter ending in June. Actually, this seems to be an industry-wide problem rather than an Apple-specific trend. In an exclusive Re/code interview, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly says tablet sales are “crashing”, and sees hope for PCs.

Many explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, the most common of which is that tablets have a longer replacement cycle than smartphones. But according to some skeptics, such as Peter Bright in an Ars Technica op-ed, there’s a much bigger problem [emphasis mine]:

“It turns out that tablets aren’t the new smartphone…[t]hey’re the new PC; if you’ve already got one, there’s not much reason to buy a new one. Their makers are all out of ideas and they can’t make them better. They can only make them cheaper.”

Bright then concludes:

“[T]he smartphone is essential in a way that the tablet isn’t. A large screen smartphone can do…all the things a tablet can do… Who needs tablets?”

Hmmm…

There is a simpler – and much less portentous – explanation. We’re going through an “expectations adjustment” period in which we’ve come to realize that tablets are not PC replacements. Each personal computer genre carries its own specifics; each instils unique habits of the body, mind, and heart; none of them is simply a “differently sized” version of the other two.

The realization of these different identities manifests itself in Apple’s steadfast refusal to hybridize, to make a “best of both worlds” tablet/laptop product.

Microsoft thinks otherwise and no less steadfastly (and expensively) produces Surface Pro hybrids. I bought the first generation two years ago, skipped the second, and recently bought a Surface Pro 3 (“The tablet that can replace your laptop”). After using it daily for a month, I can only echo what most reviewers have said, including Joanna Stern in the WSJ:

“On its third attempt, Microsoft has leapt forward in bringing the tablet and laptop together—and bringing the laptop into the future. But the Pro 3 also suffers from the Surface curse: You still make considerable compromises for getting everything in one package.”

Trying to offer the best of tablets and laptops in one product ends up compromising both functions. In my experience, too many legacy Windows applications work poorly with my fingers on the touch screen. And the $129 Type Cover is a so-so keyboard and poor trackpad. Opinions will differ, of course, but I prefer using Windows 8.1 on my Mac. We’ll see how the upcoming Windows 9, code name Threshold, will cure the ills of what Mary Jo Foley, a well-introduced Microsoft observer, calls Vista 2.0.

If we consider that Mac unit sales grew 18% last quarter (year-to-year), the company’s game becomes clear: The sweet spot on Apple’s racket is the set of customers who, like Tim Cook, use MacBooks and iPads. It’s by no means the broadest segment, just the most profitable one. Naysayers will continue to contend that the prices of competing tablets are preordained to crash and will bring ruin to Apple’s Affordable Luxury product strategy…just as they predicted netbooks would inflict damage on MacBooks.

As for Peter Bright’s contention that “[tablet] makers are all out of ideas and they can’t make them better”, one can easily see ways in which Google, Lenovo, Microsoft, Apple, and others could make improvements in weight, speed, input methods, system software, and other factors I can’t think of. After we get over the expectations adjustment period, the tablet genre will continue to be innovative, productive, and fun – for children of all ages.

JLG@mondaynote.com

The iPad Is a Tease

 

As Apple is about to release its latest quarterly numbers, new questions arise about the iPad’s “anemic” growth. The answer is simple – but the remedies are not.

The iPad isn’t growing anymore. What happened? 

In anticipation of Apple’s latest quarterly numbers – they’ll be announced on April 23rd – the usual prerelease estimates swirl around the Web. You can find Yahoo’s summary of analysts’ estimates here; Paul Leitao’s Posts At Eventide provides a detailed and tightly reasoned history and forecast for the March 2014 quarter.

The consensus is that for the company as a whole, there won’t be any surprises: Apple will meet the guidance stated in its January 27th earnings call. Revenue will be down, as befits the quarter following the Christmas shopping frenzy, but profit per share (EPS) will be up a bit.

Boring. With one glaring exception:

Braeburn Group iPad Edited
(Source: The Braeburn Group)

In the same quarter for 2013, the iPad’s year-on-year growth was about 55%. Some of this phenomenal growth was due to a rebound from earlier iPad mini supply constraints, but that doesn’t explain the precipitous drop from 2013 to this year.

Are the iPad’s go-go years over?

As Philip Elmer-DeWitt reports on his Apple 2.0 site, this gloomy prediction appears to be the majority opinion among analysts. Elmer-DeWitt acknowledges that there are outliers — Horace Dediu comes in at the high end with an estimate of 21.8M units (and positive growth) — but “the consensus estimate of 19.3 million, would represent a 0.7% decline”.

It’s one thing for a product to increase in unit volume sales but still grow less than the overall market — that’s simply a loss of market share. And we know how fallacious share numbers can be in the absence of an honest disclosure of sales volumes. No, assuming the estimates are right, what we have here isn’t market share dilution, it isn’t a post-Christmas lull, it’s a year-to-year decline in absolute unit numbers.

Why?

I’ll offer an opinion: The iPad is a tease. Its meteoric debut raised expectations that it can’t currently meet.

To explain, let’s go back four years.

Steve Jobs’ last creation took us by surprise, price included, and was initially panned by many in the kommentariat, from Eric Schmidt to Dan Lyons (who subsequently recanted). But normal humans joyously took to the iPad. In 1984, one of Apple’s tag line for the Mac was “Macintosh – the computer for the rest of us.” Decades later, the iPad was quickly perceived as a sort of second coming. As MacWorld put it in June 2011: Now Apple’s really “for the rest of us”.

Indeed, the iPad wasn’t targeted at a particular type — or generation — of user. David Hockney has produced exquisite iPad “paintings”. Daniel Borel, Logitech’s co-founder, told me that his two-year old grandson immediately “got” the iPad (even if it was just to play games, but…he’s two). Coming out of our breakfast meeting, I crossed paths with a couple of seniors — octogenarians, probably — who proudly told me that they were going to an iPad training session at the Palo Alto Apple Store.

The iPad rose and rose. It won legions of admirers because of its simplicity: No windows (no pun), no file system, no cursor keys (memories of the first Mac). Liberated from these old-style personal computer ways, the iPad cannibalized PC sales and came to be perceived as the exemplar Post-PC device.

But that truly blissful simplicity exacts a high price. I recall my first-day disappointment when I went home and tried to write a Monday Note on my new iPad. It’s difficult — impossible, really — to create a real-life composite document, one that combines graphics, spreadsheet data, rich text from several sources and hyperlinks. For such tasks, the Rest of Us have to go back to our PCs and Macs.

I realize there are iPad users who happily perform “productivity tasks” on their iPads. Most of them use a stand and keyboard sold in a number of guises. The number of different offerings is a testament to a real need. (We’ll note that Apple doesn’t seem eager to address this issue directly. They don’t offer an “iPad-sized” keyboard — the Bluetooth keyboard I use is fine for my iMac, but feels gargantuan when I pair it with my iPad. And Apple’s iPad Dock hasn’t been updated to work with the “Lightning” connector on the newer iPads.)

The iPad’s limitations extend beyond classic office productivity tasks. I just tried to build an itinerary for a long postponed road trip, driving all the way from Key West Florida to Palo Alto. On a Mac, you can easily “print to PDF” to produce a map for each leg of the trip. Then you use the wonderful Preview app (I salute its author and dedicated maintainer) to emend unneeded pages, drag and drop, combine and rearrange the PDF files into a single document. Don’t try this on an iPad: How would you “print-to-PDF” a map page, let alone combine such pages?

Despite the inspiring ads, Apple’s hopes for the iPad overshot what the product can actually deliver. Although there’s a large numbers of iPad-only users, there’s also a substantial population of dual-use customers for whom both tablets and conventional PCs are now part of daily life.

I see the lull in iPad sales as a coming down to reality after unrealistic expectations, a realization that iPads aren’t as ready to replace PCs as many initially hoped.

In his introduction of the iPad in January, 2010, Jobs himself seemed a bit tentative when positioning his latest creation. Sitting in the Le Corbusier chair, Jobs stated that his new tablet would have to “find its place between the iPhone and the Mac”.

This “in-between place” is still elusive.

Microsoft tried to find that “in-between place”, and we know how well that worked. For the Redmond company, the iPad’s limitations were an opportunity: Simply emulate the charm and intuitiveness of the market-leading tablet and cater to the needs of the “professional” user. With its touch interface and keyboard, the Surface device sounded like the solution that had eluded Microsoft’s earlier PC Tablets. In the field, customers didn’t like the dueling interfaces, nor the introduction of layers of complexity where simplicity had been promised. Surface tablets didn’t move the revenue needle and cost Microsoft a $900M write-down.

The iPad represents about 20% of Apple’s revenue; allowing iPad numbers to plummet isn’t acceptable. So far, Apple’s bet has been to keep the iPad simple, rigidly so perhaps, rather than creating a neither-nor product: No longer charmingly simple, but not powerful enough for real productivity tasks. But if the iPad wants to cannibalize more of the PC market, it will have to remove a few walls.

Specifically, the iPad is a computer, it has a file system, directories, and the like — why hide these “details” from users? Why prevent us from hunting around for the bits and bobs we need to assemble a brochure or a trip itinerary?

None of this is news to Apple execs, but they also know that success doesn’t depend on What, on a simple feature list. The next step in iPad growth will depend on How new features are integrated into the user experience. It’s a tricky game of the Best of Both Worlds…and it tripped up Microsoft.

When will we know? I have no idea. Perhaps at the WWDC this coming June.

JLG@mondaynote.com

The Hybrid Tablet Temptation

 

In no small part, the iPad’s success comes from its uncompromising Do Less To Do More philosophy. Now a reasonably mature product, can the iPad expand its uses without falling into the hybrid PC/tablet trap?

When the iPad came out, almost four years ago, it was immediately misunderstood by industry insiders – and joyously embraced by normal humans. Just Google iPad naysayer for a few nuggets of iPad negativism. Even Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, couldn’t avoid the derivative trap: He saw the new object as a mere evolution of an existing one and shrugged off the iPad as a bigger phone. Schmidt should have known better, he had been an Apple director in the days when Jobs believed the two companies were “natural allies”.

I was no wiser. I got my first iPad on launch day and was immediately disappointed. My new tablet wouldn’t let me do the what I did on my MacBook Air – or my tiny EeePC running Windows Xp (not Vista!). For example, writing a Monday Note on an iPad was a practical impossibility – and still is.

I fully accept the personal nature of this view and, further, I don’t buy the media consumption vs. productivity dichotomy Microsoft and its shills (Gartner et al.) tried to foist on us. If by productivity we mean work, work product, earning one’s living, tablets in general and the iPad in particular have more than made the case for their being productivity tools as well as education and entertainment devices.

Still, preparing a mixed media document, even a moderately complex one, irresistibly throws most users back to a conventional PC or laptop. With multiple windows and folders, the PC lets us accumulate text, web pages, spreadsheets and graphics to be distilled, cut and pasted into the intended document.

Microsoft now comes to the rescue. Their hybrid Surface PC/Tablet lets you “consume” media, play games in purely tablet mode – and switch to the comfortable laptop facilities offered by Windows 8. The iPad constricts you to ersatz folders, preventing you to put your document’s building blocks in one place? No problem, the Surface device features a conventional desktop User Interface, familiar folders, comfy Office apps as well as a “modern” tile-based Touch UI. The best of both worlds, skillfully promoted in TV ads promising work and fun rolled into one device.

What’s not to like?

John Kirk, a self-described “recovering attorney”, whose tightly argued and fun columns are always worth reading, has answers. In a post on Tablets Metaphysics – unfortunately behind a paywall – he focuses on the Aristotelian differences between tablets and laptops. Having paid my due$$ to the Techpinions site, I will quote Kirk’s summation [emphasis mine]:

Touch is ACCIDENTAL to a Notebook computer. It’s plastic surgery. It may enhance the usefulness of a Notebook but it doesn’t change the essence of what a Notebook computer is. A keyboard is ACCIDENTAL to a Tablet. It’s plastic surgery. It may enhance the usefulness of a Tablet, but it doesn’t change the essence of what a Tablet is. Further — and this is key — a touch input metaphor and a pixel input metaphor must be wholly different and wholly incompatible with one another. It’s not just that they do not comfortably co-exist within one form factor. It’s also that they do not comfortably co-exist within our minds eye.

In plain words, it’s no accident that tablets and notebooks are distinctly different from one another. On the contrary, their differences — their incompatibilities — are the essence of what makes them what they are.

Microsoft, deeply set in the culture of backwards compatibility that served it so well for so long did the usual thing, it added a tablet layer on top of Windows 7. The result didn’t take the market by storm and appears to have caused the exit of Steve Sinofsky, the Windows czar now happily ensconced at Harvard Business School and a Board Partner with the Andreessen Horowitz venture firm. Many think the $900M Surface RT write-off also contributed to Ballmer’s August 2013 resignation.

Now equipped with hindsight, Apple’s decision to stick to a “pure” tablet looks more inspired than lucky. If we remember that a tablet project preceded the iPhone, only to be set aside for a while, Apple’s “stubborn minimalism”, its refusal to hybridize the iPad might be seen as the result of long experimentation – with more than a dash of Steve Jobs (and Scott Forstall) inflexibility.

Apple’s bet can be summed up thus: MacBooks and iPads have their respective best use cases, they both reap high customer satisfaction scores. Why ruin a good game?

Critics might add: Why sell one device when we can sell two? Apple would rather “force” us to buy two devices in order to maximize revenue. On this, Tim Cook often reminds Wall Street of Apple’s preference for self-cannibalization, for letting its new and less expensive products displace existing ones. Indeed, the iPad keeps cannibalizing laptops, PCs and Macs alike.

All this leaves one question unanswered: Is that it? Will the iPad fundamentals stay the way they have been from day one? Are we going to be thrown back to our notebooks when composing the moderately complex mixed-media documents I earlier referred to? Or will the iPad hardware/software combination become more adept at such uses?

To start, we can eliminate a mixed-mode iOS/Mac device. Flip a switch, it’s an iPad, flip it again, add a keyboard/touchpad and you have a Mac. No contraption allowed. We know where to turn to for that.

Next, a new iOS version allows multiple windows to appear on the iPad screen; folders are no longer separately attached to each app as they are today but lets us store documents from multiple apps in one place. Add a blinking cursor for text and you have… a Mac, or something too close to a Mac but still different. Precisely the reason why that won’t work.

(This might pose the question of an A7 or A8 processor replacing the Intel chip inside a MacBook Air. It can be done – a “mere matter of software” – but how much would it cut from the manufacturing cost? $30 to $50 perhaps. Nice but not game-changing, a question for another Monday Note.)

More modest, evolutionary changes might still be welcome. Earlier this year, Counternotions proposed a slotted clipboard as An interim solution for iOS ‘multitasking‘:

[...] until Apple has a more general solution to multitasking and inter-app navigation, the four-slot clipboard with a visible UI should be announced at WWDC. I believe it would buy Ive another year for a more comprehensive architectural solution, as he’ll likely need it.

This year’s WWDC came and went with the strongest iOS update so far, but no general nor interim solution to the multitasking and inter-app navigation discussed in the post. (Besides  the Counternotions blog, this erudite and enigmatic author also edits counternotions.tumblr.com and can be followed on Twitter as @Kontra.)

A version of the above suggestion could be conceptualized as a floating dropbox to be invoked when needed, hovering above the document worked on. This would not require the recreation of a PC-like windows and desktop UI. Needed components could be extracted from the floating store, dragged and dropped on the work in process.

We’ll have to wait and see if and how Apple evolves the iPad without falling into the hybrid trap.

On even more speculative ground, a recent iPad Air intro video offered a quick glimpse of the Pencil stylus by Fifty-Three, the creators of the well-regarded Paper iPad app. So far, styli haven’t done well on the iPad. Apple only stocks children-oriented devices from Disney and Marvel. Nothing else, in spite of the abundance of such devices offered on Amazon. Perhaps we’ll someday see Apple grant Bill Gates his wish, as recounted by Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson:

“I’ve been predicting a tablet with a stylus for many years,” he told me. “I will eventually turn out to be right or be dead.”

Someday, we might see an iPad, larger or not, Pro or not, featuring a screen with more degrees of pressure sensitivity. After seeing David Hockney’s work on iPads at San Francisco’s de Young museum, my hopes are high.

JLG@mondaynote.com

@gassee