Only a year ago, Apple's iPad was still the darling of the tech industry. The fastest-selling product line in Apple's estimable history, iPads soared to meteoric heights as the PC market came crashing down, prompting more than a few tech commentators to predict tablets would obviate the need for PCs for most users. Throughout 2014, however, this iPad narrative changed.
After posting fantastic Q1 sales on the strength of its new iPad Air, Apple has suffered three consecutive quarters of falling tablet sales. Apple scored a few points this fall when it launched the iPad Air 2, with many reviewers hailing the device as the best tablet available. But even as pundits showered the device with praise, most admitted it was an incremental upgrade -- thinner and faster than its predecessor, with a Touch ID scanner and a nicer screen, but not a significant upgrade in terms of functionality.
The company's iPad Mini refresh was even more modest; Apple essentially stuck a Touch ID on last year's model, added a gold color option, and called it a day. Recently, Apple has actually earned more money from Macs than iPads, which is pretty amazing, given that not long ago iPads were characterized as PC killers. Apple's iPad business also sustained some PR bruises, notably the disintegration of its landmark iPad deal with LA Unified school district.
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To be fair to Apple, the entire tablet market slowed this year -- from over 50% growth in 2013 to only around 7% growth in 2014, according to research firm IDC. Shoppers also snapped up around 68 million iPads, not quite as many as last year, but still a lofty number that no other single family of tablets can touch. The fact that Mac revenue meanwhile exceeded iPad revenue had at least as much to do with rising Mac sales as falling iPad marks. While 2014 might have been a slow year for iPads, it's hyperbole to predict that Apple's tablet line is doomed.
Indeed, Apple CEO Tim Cook has characterized the slowdown as a mere "speed bump," promising that iPad innovation hasn't yet peaked. Cook argues that because iPads hit the market only a few years ago, no one knows exactly what kind of upgrade cycle to expect. Many anticipated that iPad users would buy newer models every couple of years, just as many iPhone users do. But Web-tracking services continue to report substantial Internet traffic from older iPads, indicating that many users with two- or three-year-old devices are happy with the performance levels these older machines provide.
Cook could be right. If existing iPad users have been waiting to upgrade, and new customers have driven recent sales, millions of users might buy new models in coming months, making 2015 a blockbuster year for iPads. Iterative advances, such as the jump from the iPad Air to the iPad Air 2, don't look so iterative if the target audiences are people who've never owned an iPad and people with three- or four-year-old models.
Moreover, Apple execs likely knew that iPhone 6 Plus sales would cut into consumer demand for the iPad Mini. This explains why the newest Mini was such a slight improvement over its predecessor. If demand was already going to be depressed, why not save the big advances until Q1 or Q2 of 2015? Reports claim Apple postponed new products so it could dedicate more of its supply chain resources to meeting iPhone 6 demand. If true, this notion reinforces the idea that Apple could be holding back bigger iPad improvements while it seeks to maximize iPhone sales.
Then again, even if iPads are among the most polished and elegant tablets available, they're more expensive than many competitors -- and depending on one's use cases, the iPad's "superior" features might not matter. Want a tablet primarily for surfing the Web, posting to social media, and watching videos? Most any tablet with an IPS screen will capably handle the job.
With scores of cheap Windows and Android tablets available, iPads in some ways face the same challenges that have limited Mac sales over the years: If one prioritizes raw utility and cost, iPads might be hard to justify over cheaper competitors, just as many have found Macs difficult to justify over less expensive but similarly spec'd Windows PCs. But if one prioritizes hardware design and Apple's particular brand of user experience, iPads and Macs justify their relatively higher prices.
It's also worth noting that PC sales, though still far from their halcyon days, somewhat stabilized this year. With Windows XP reaching its end-of-service deadline, healthier PC sales aren't surprising. Some of those XP users may have replaced old machines with tablets, but, because mice and keyboards are still necessary for many types of work, millions of other XP users bought new PCs.
It's possible many people spent 2014 upgrading PCs and plan to spend 2015 upgrading tablets. But it's also possible that decent PC sales show the tablet craze has fallen back to earth -- that customers have realized
even a great tablet can't fully eliminate the need for a solid PC. This sort of user sentiment could clearly limit future iPad sales and delay upgrades. Recent Windows 2-in-1s, which have improved markedly from their awkward predecessors, only make the iPad's future harder to predict.
Is Apple merely taking its time before releasing the next great iPad innovation? Or have the devices settled into a new pecking order in which tablets are useful but not as essential and disruptive as once thought? Time will tell -- but here are four ways Apple can -- and in most cases, likely will -- move the iPad needle in 2015.
1. Release a bigger iPad.
This one's been rumored for months. Recent reports are split as to whether the device will boast a 12.2-inch display, or a slightly larger 12.9-inch screen. Either way, the plus-sized iPad -- called the iPad Pro or iPad Air Plus in various reports -- will be much larger than any of the current iOS devices, which top out with the iPad Air's 9.7-inch touchscreen. A new processor will allegedly power the device, which is rumored to include up to 4 GB of RAM and a pixel-rich Retina display. Some reports claim that, despite its larger screen and souped-up internals, the new iPad will be thinner than the original iPad Air -- though not quite as thin as the iPad Air 2, which Apple claims is the world's thinnest tablet. The larger iPad is also expected to contain speakers at both the top and bottom, compared to only a single speaker on current models.
A few of today's larger tablets, such as Microsoft's Surface Pro 3, have sold decently, so Apple might gain customers simply by introducing a larger size, as with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. But if the device is to succeed, Apple will need to provide a functional reason for a larger iPad to exist. See the next two items for some of the ways Apple will likely attempt to tackle this requirement.
2. Introduce split-screen multitasking.
Apple hasn't discussed whether future iPads will offer split-screen multitasking, which Windows 8 and 8.1 tablets already offer. Support for the feature was discovered buried in the code of the iOS 8 developers' preview, however -- so it's a good bet Apple will introduce it. The ability to run side-by-side apps would be particularly useful on the rumored iPad Pro, so it won't be surprising if Apple introduces the feature and the tablet together. Will Apple restrict true multitasking to the largest iPad as a differentiating feature? Or will this capability extend all the way down to the iPad Mini? Based on iPad Pro rumors, we should find out some time in the second quarter.
3. Hit the gas pedal on enterprise apps.
During the Steve Jobs era, Apple never showed much interest in accommodating enterprise customers, but as the company's recent pact with IBM demonstrates, things are a bit different under Tim Cook. The partnership's first apps, which integrate with IBM's cloud services, were niche, industry-specific efforts -- not exactly "Siri meets Watson," as InformationWeek's Doug Henschen opined. Future waves of apps will reveal how serious Apple is about pursuing enterprise customers -- but it's a good bet Apple's finally ready to get aggressive. Some reports claim the iPad Pro will be aimed at enterprise customers, for example, which could mean Apple is preparing a host of new apps, perhaps with IBM's help, for the larger screen. Moreover, BYOD programs and corporate deployments of iPads and iPhones have allowed Apple to accrue a huge enterprise user base without expending much focused effort. With Apple's consumer strength spilling into the enterprise, it would be foolish for the company not to take advantage of its newly expanded reach.
4. Invest in new interaction models and use cases.
Whereas the previous three items in this list are relatively likely to occur in 2015, this one is much more speculative. When Tim Cook said the iPad is still ripe for innovation, one hopes he was talking about more than larger screens and a multitasking feature already present in Windows tablets. Based on patents, however, Apple has lots of other ideas, such as iPads that can be controlled, not only via touch screens, but also through gestures. Other iPad patents refer to solar-charged devices and attachable keyboards like those many Windows tablets offer. Voice controls are another area for potential improvement. Siri has evolved over time, but many of us are still waiting for the digital assistant to take a truly transformative leap.
Attend Interop Las Vegas, the leading independent technology conference and expo series designed to inspire, inform, and connect the world's IT community. In 2015, look for all new programs, networking opportunities, and classes that will help you set your organization’s IT action plan. It happens April 27 to May 1. Register with Discount Code MPOIWK for $200 off Total Access & Conference Passes.Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio