Some products drive strategy, and some products reflect strategy. The former are the raison d’être of strategies —their purpose, their point— while the latter are passengers who ride for free on strategic choices already made. Products that drive strategy tend to be unique, while products which ride strategy tend to be derivative.

With iPad, Apple has a curious dilemma. On the one hand, iPad was plainly felt by Apple to be the successor to Macintosh: a “bicycle for the mind” product whose aspirational marketing suggests a transformative, creativity-enabling tool for artists, scientists, explorers, and makers of all kinds [1]:

Fig. 1: Apple’s high-profile “Your Verse” campaign seems to have been a failure, and has been cancelled.

On the other hand, the reality of iPad is much more prosaic: we use iPads in our homes more than on mountains; we watch videos and read on them more than we scuba dive and save coral reefs with them. While iPad has enabled lots of creativity, it isn’t broadly perceived by consumers as a transformative cultural phenomenon, or perhaps to be more precise: consumers aren’t buying the iPad to empower themselves creatively. They buy them for the couch.

Apple is marketing a message that doesn’t resonate. It doesn’t suggest to those who see it how iPad should matter to them, what it can bring to their lives. But worse, iPad itself no longer seems interesting: little if any organic excitement about iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 could be perceived after their announcement. Their new features didn’t grab many ordinary folks.

And of course, iPad sales are weak:

Fig 2: iPad sales are down, and iPad sales growth is not good. See: Tim Cook, in his own words, on why the iPad has a bright future.

While the usual excuses are accurate to a degree —replacement cycles for tablets are slower; tablets tend not to be carrier-subsidized; everyone needs a phone, but not everyone needs a tablet— they miss the point: Apple isn’t developing iPad enough to interest people. Why? I think that:

  1. Apple isn’t pushing the iPad according to iPad’s uses and applications in the real world, but rather by porting advancements made to iPhone to iPad. iPad has never more fully been “just a big iPhone” than it is right now.
  2. Advancements made to iPhone are often irrelevant to iPad, and vice versa; making iPad available in gold didn’t create additional functionality, and while smartphones approach jewelry in aesthetic import, tablets don’t.
  3. Given the product’s development and evolution, Apple’s marketing seems incoherent and inauthentic. What use do mountain climbers have for a gold iPad? Why is this degree of thinness a major design priority for such a device?

In sum: iPad sales are weak because iPad development has been a strategic hand-me-down from iPhone, even though iPhone is a fundamentally different product. iPad marketing has been inauthentic and ineffectual because how consumers use the product isn’t how Apple wants to advertise it, and how Apple advertises the product isn’t how Apple develops it.

What will my verse be? Something about the thinnest gold tablet in the world!

Alternative histories

Contrast Apple Watch and iPad: with Apple Watch, Apple is recommitting to many of its strategic differentiators in a new category where they really matter. For a watch, build quality, finishes, technology miniaturization, thinness, and aesthetic choice are supremely important, and Apple has an advantage in these areas. [1]

For iPad, it’s less clear that these areas will be key differentiators. It’s obvious that miniaturization, build quality, and so on are always relevant. But consider an alternative history in which iPad is launched first —after all, it was in development earlier than iPhone was— and it really is intended as the successor to the Macintosh. What would such a product look like?

  • Friendly, approachable, cute
  • Intended for use in the home by families and children
  • Durable, self-contained, hard to damage
  • Aimed at capturing use-cases owned by computers

What would this mean for the physical design of the product? A product likely to be used in schools and minivans, left on seats and packed for plane trips, smeared with sticky fingers or curled up with in bed? It likely means that a relentless obsession with thinness would be replaced by different obsessions: durability, lightness, waterproofing, usability; perhaps plastic and colorful, like Ive’s designs for the iBook:

Fig. 3: Try and stay any zeitgeist antipathy for color and curves. The point is more that in many instances, thinness and sleek metal-and-glass enclosures aren’t optimal, and Ive and Jobs knew it.

Obviously, a chunky, overlarge, garish iPad is not desirable, but it’s not hard to imagine a range of design ideas for an alternative iPad form. As an easy example, consider the colors and integrated loop in Apple’s current iPod touch. Why is the iPad available in gold, gray, and white, rather than red, blue, and green? Why isn’t there an integrated loop for iPad mini, which children can easily drop and damage?

In fact: why are iPads so easily damaged? Why does this portable bicycle for the mind we hand to children shatter when dropped? Is solving that problem more important than shaving another millimeter off? (Is it even possible?)

It’s not only in hardware that we can imagine alternative decisions. Apple makes every effort to highlight the empowering, complex, and capable software made for iPad, but most of us still consider it far less powerful than a Macintosh. Moving around a tablet is slower than moving around a laptop. You can’t develop software on iPad; there isn’t even the equivalent of Hypercard. Even though many iPads are shared and iOS is bad for multi-user devices, Apple hasn’t addressed the issue and probably won’t.

In both hardware and software, iPad is a derivative of iPhone. And problems on iPad that aren’t problems on iPhone therefore get ignored. Ways in which iPad isn’t succeeding are masked because it seems to be expected only to match iPhone.

Landscape

By looking at incompatibilities in Apple’s various goals for iPad, we can start to understand some of the marketing and development incoherence. Apple wants iPad to:

  • Be the best tablet a consumer can buy
  • Own the profitable part of the tablet market while keeping good margins
  • Ensure that Apple has a healthy or dominant position in the next-generation computational platform, which it feels will be tablet-based
  • Enhance the value of the iOS ecosystem and iPhone
  • Benefit from iPhone (its volume, its apps, its technologies)
  • Pressure Apple’s competitors in ways that don’t suit their strengths

Not all of these goals are aligned. For example: an ideal tablet is probably durable, but Apple wants iPad to achieve dominant market share (both for its sake and for iOS in general), so it’s important to leverage iPhone technologies to keep costs down while still pressuring rivals with unmatchable entrants. iPhone is focused on thinness, so now iPad is too, and to be fair: this does pressure rivals intensely. But an imperative to leverage iPhone requires that iPad follow iPhone development, even though it’s possible that making the best tablet isn’t always the same thing as using iPhone technology and manufacturing processes.

I suspect that as sales slow, the business argument for developing iPad after iPhone gets stronger: iPhone is a blockbuster success, iPad is a struggling relative, and they can often both use the same technologies. We could plausibly expect continued convergence, even though convergence doesn’t serve the iPad well.

Products are best developed holistically, according to their own purposes and qualities. But while that path can be unclear, the competitive landscape suggests that iPad is safely defensible when it follows iPhone. After all, cheap, thick, underpowered plastic tablets from OEMs don’t win over buyers, and again: Apple has technology and manufacturing advantages in iPhone that are tempting to use in iPad. Rather than the iPad becoming ever-more the fulfillment of its nature and potential, it follows a safe, dull course charted by its flashier sibling.

Stories

Although they dropped the word “computer” from their name, Apple is still more than a technology company. It’s hard to put it precisely, but a major part of their internal and external narrative is that Apple makes technology usable by and for humans. And not just any technology: open-ended technologies that allow for creative expression and meaningful innovation. In other words: Apple makes computational platforms, and they also make devices that enhance those platforms’ utility. That’s Apple’s story.

What’s troubling about the seemingly directionless iPad isn’t just that its sales are slowing and its new features are boring. It’s that Apple has for some time implied that iPad is the heir to vision of Macintosh. The Mac was supposed to be “the computer for the rest of us,” but iPad seemed likelier to achieve this dream. The file system is finally gone; complex UIs and deprecated computer science metaphors have been disposed of. Everyone can finally use this platform to do anything. That’s iPad’s story.

But it seems clear that this narrative isn’t resonating, and I think that’s because it’s not accurate. To recapitulate, I think it fails to connect with consumers because:

  1. iPad isn’t used this way by most people. Instead, most people use iPad as a very diverse and rich entertainment device. They use it for fun, to watch and play and read. It’s easy to say that this is because of the Pareto principle, but I wonder how much it reflects the following:
  2. iPad isn’t developed this way by Apple. If it were, the design priorities would include solving iPad’s inferiority to Macintosh for major tasks —writing, document editing, precision inputs, coding, image processing, modeling, music-making, etc.— rather than making it thinner and available in gold.

I don’t want to suggest that it’s obvious how to improve iPad along these lines; indeed, that’s the whole point: it isn’t, which means it’s valuable to do so. Obvious or “inevitable” improvements aren’t nearly as valued by consumers, which is why making a thinner iPad doesn’t excite them and why no one cared about the iPad event.

The question facing Apple: what is iPad’s real story? Is iPad going to be a bicycle for the mind? If so, development shouldn’t be slavishly imitative of iPhone. Is iPad going to be “a big iPhone” for consumption? Then make it more useful along those lines: as a fun, consumer device, durable and personal, colorful and playful. Make the speakers better. Make it feel like something one should be handing to a five year old. And for Pete’s sake: stop advertising it like it’s the monolith from 2001 if most buyers really want a portable entertainment center.

Fig. 3: Perfect for playing Angry Birds.

At the start, we noted that some products drive strategy and some reflect it. I think Apple expected iPad to drive strategy as its volume exploded. Instead, due in part to sales, it’s seems that iPad will ride iPhone’s coattails. This is a definitionally derivative path, and one that problematizes the notion that iPad is the next Macintosh. The deepest issue involved in all this is: what is the future computational platform for Apple? How long will it be Macintosh + iOS? Will iOS ever become a fully independent and self-creating platform? What must happen with iOS devices first? How must iPads evolve to support the full range of creative expression that Macintosh does, in both hardware and software senses?

Either direction —towards more durability and ‘fun’ for toy-like casual use or towards computational utility, with whatever that might entail— would be an improvement on a hand-me-downs-based product plan. Both are likelier to create the value consumers need to see to spend money on non-essential devices like tablets, as both reflect the actual uses and limitations of iPad. And nothing excites people like improvements to utility, not even the subtraction of an additional millimeter off of their Netflix viewer.

Mills Baker