The Future of Computing

Álvaro Serrano, in a well-written and reasoned take on the iPad sales situation:

I don’t think there’s anyone left out there complaining that their iPads are not fast enough these days, or that battery life isn’t good enough. Similarly, screens are gorgeous, storage is ample, and wireless connectivity is better than ever. By all accounts, the iPad is a mature product line hardware-wise, and yet it is still very much in its infancy when it comes to software.

Álvaro is a little less enthusiastic about the iPad than I am, but it’s the best piece I’ve read on the topic so far.

If you’re unaware, iPad sales haven’t been so hot lately. They seem to have peaked at the end of 2013 and have been down year-over-year ever since. Many have speculated about why this could be, with theories ranging from Apple’s lack of commitment to the possibility that Apple was wrong about iOS — it might not be the future of computing. I’ve already shared my thoughts on the situation on twitter, but I thought I’d reiterate them here — it might be something I’ll want to point to in the future.

iPad owners don’t buy new iPads because the one they have is just as fast as the day they bought it. By comparison, the Windows PCs that many of these users buy are at their fastest when they’re first setup. I reference Windows users because they represent the vast majority of mainstream computer users and I believe them to be the primary reason for the massive success of the iPad in its early days.

These Windows PCs remain as their owners’ primary machine until they’re practically unusable — simply from years of built-up cruft in the OS. One solution would be to reinstall the operating system to regain that performance, but most people don’t know how to do that. It’s much easier for them to buy a new computer.

This scenario is practically non-existent with iOS. iPads almost always feel just as fast as the day they were purchased. This is also true with iPhones, but they have an entirely different, built-in mechanism that encourages owners to upgrade. Unlike PCs and iPads, many users buy a new iPhone because, as portable devices, they are prone to being dropped and broken — cracked screens, water damage, and the like.

iPad sales are down year-over-year because there’s no inherit mechanism that encourages users to upgrade. The OS and third-party software system is designed to prevent unnecessary cruft — PCs fight a losing battle against a growing list of login items and background tasks — and they’re less likely to be physically damaged because they’re not taken everywhere like an iPhone is.

Perhaps Apple should spend more time building iPad-specific features in an effort to increase sales. I certainly wouldn’t complain about this strategy. I’m strongly in favor of anything that improves the software on my primary machine, but I’m not entirely convinced that it will make much of a difference.

In the tech-centric circles that many of us frequent, new hardware and software features matter, a lot. But I don’t think the mainstream user is convinced to spend hundreds of dollars on a new device just because it connects to a new kind of wireless keyboard or works with a $100 drawing accessory that you have to buy separately.

Mainstream users think of their computers as appliances — they’re purchased for their utility. They are essential, but they aren’t anything to get excited about. And just like appliances, they’re replaced on an as-needed basis. When was the last time someone you know bought a dishwasher before their old one bit the dust? Probably never.

The iPad upgrade cycle might be longer than any other computing device in history. This might look terrible for Apple’s financial department, but it’s a testament to how well-crafted these devices are from both a software and hardware standpoint. The lengthy upgrade cycle lends itself to high customer satisfaction ratings and repeat customers. That’s something Apple should be proud of — a computing device that doesn’t have to be replaced every few years.

The iPad may never be a 15-20 million units per quarter kind of device, like it was in its early days, but that’s okay. As long as Apple continues to invest time and resources into improving the platform, and they’re able to sell enough to support that investment, the iPad could still end up becoming “the future of computing.” Even if unit sales aren’t as tremendously impressive as everyone wants them to be.