iPads are useless (but they were important)

Perhaps you remember the iPad launch of 2010?

Though the idea of the tablet computer wasn’t new, Apple stamped its approval on the device by releasing their own version and instantly set the Internet abuzz. First came the jokes, then came the skepticism.

Eventually, though, a third reaction appeared: cautious optimism. Perhaps this super-sized iPhone clone could find a niche between the utilitarian appeal of the laptop and the go-everywhere functionality of the smartphone?

And for several years, that’s precisely what happened. The iPad became the default device for viewing video, interacting with images, reading books, and even subscribing to magazines. Many consumers found the more powerful iPad to be a better fit than other reading devices, like their Kindle, because it could do so much more than simply display text. Even designers and artists (including David Hockney) turned to the iPad as a tactile canvas.

Sales spiked: iPad sales accounted for more than 26 percent of Apple’s revenues in the third quarter of 2012. The company sold more than 58 million of the tablets in 2013.

Yet that’s not the situation the company finds itself in today. Apple sold 23% fewer devices in 2015 than the year before, and sales have been dropping steadily for several quarters.

In fact, I’d argue that the iPad is increasingly useless in a world where our smartphones are growing more powerful and our laptops are growing skinnier with every new iteration.

So was it a fundamental misstep when Apple entered the tablet market? Should they have invested their resources into a product that still sells well today, say, another version of the iPhone or a revamped iMac?

My answer is no. The iPad, though it may have outlived its usefulness to the majority of consumers, played a powerful role in helping whet our appetites for what was to come.

Looking at the iPad from a purely strategic point of view, I believe it helped usher in three major sea changes within computer users:
The iPad made us ask more of our mobile devices. When the iPad debuted in 2010, the iPhone was running on iOS 3, which lacked features we take for granted today, like FaceTime or the ability to easily manage multiple email accounts or calendars. Other smartphones were still struggling with smaller screens and lower resolution interfaces. As we grew accustomed to more screen real estate, higher resolution videos, the ability to manipulate images and text more easily with our fingers, and increased portability, we started to collectively wonder why our smartphones couldn’t do double duty as tablets, too.

The iPad pushed laptops to be more efficient. With the iPad able to perform many of the key tasks we traditionally assigned to laptops, including text editing, putting together presentations, and working with images and even video, iPad users often began turning to their laptops less and less. In response, computer makers pushed to transform laptops into sleeker, more portable devices, leading to popular models like Apple’s MacBook Air and Lenovo’s tablet PCs, which combine the portability of a tablet with the functionality of a laptop.

The iPad paved the way for well-designed mobile devices to also be viewed as professional tools. When the iPad first debuted, companies like BlackBerry still had a stranglehold on the professional market of smartphone users, as the iPhone was not always seen as secure, powerful enough, or office-friendly enough to be used in the business world. The iPad, which could be equipped with a removable keyboard and could serve as a handy repository of corporate presentations and documents, proved that a mobile device could be also find a place in the professional world. And with its suite of graphic design, audio and video editing, and text editing tools, the iPad could also be used as a “laptop-lite” for business travelers who didn’t want the hassle or expense of lugging their work computers on business trips.

While Apple appears to be investing some major upgrades into their new line of iPads after letting the devices mostly languish for several cycles, it may be too late to bring their tablet business back to its 2012 heights. But just like the compact disc helped us realize that our music should be mobile, that the VHS helped us realize that we liked recording and saving television shows, and the cassette tape helped us organize and share our music, the iPad helped us collectively realize that mobile was the future, and that we needed to embrace it or be left behind.

The lesson here? It’s OK to be ahead of the curve if it helps your customers reach an important insight that will transform their lives. Just remember that one day your high-flying product of the future may also be obsolete.

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