I can’t find a way out of an uncomfortable conclusion. In order for the iPad to fulfill its supposed Post-PC destiny, it has to either become more like an iPhone or more like a Mac. But it can’t do either without losing its raison d’être.
Multiple Purposes, One or Two Uses
Although both the iPhone and the iPad are multi-purpose devices, it seems only the iPhone fills a multi-purpose need in customers’ lives. A typical1 customer’s iPhone is put to work in all its capacity, while her iPad is relegated to only one or two niche uses. An iPhone is a phone, a flashlight, a GPS navigator, a camera, etc. An iPad can be most of those things, but in practice it gets stuck being just one or two of them.
The two devices are nearly identical in their technical specifications. They’re constructed from similar materials. They have the same operating system, chips, and sensors. It seems they differ only in size. The canned rebuttal to this comparison is that the iPad is more than “just a big iPod”. It’s a “Post-PC” device, capable of both content creation and consumption, destined to usurp the PC as the essential tool for getting shit done.
iPad apologists are half right. The iPad isn’t a big iPod, but it isn’t more than that. In a way it’s less. Customers use it for only one or two of several niche purposes:
Private Reading – Books, magazines, and web sites.
Family Entertainment – TV, movies, and gaming.
Productivity – Notepad, calendar, sometimes not much more than a portable typewriter.
Professional Tools – Think of the myriad, mutually-exclusive uses portrayed in the Your Verse series of Apple ads. Unless you’re a tap-dancing molecular biologist filming your latest travel documentary, then your iPad is most likely a single-purpose professional tool.
Education – Substitute for textbooks and handouts.
Every iPad has the latent capacity for many uses, but individual customers don’t have a need for all of them. The iPad over-serves the needs of its typical owner. Elementary school students don’t need surgery guides. Videographers don’t need to play Clash of Clans on the way to Grandma’s.
iPhone vs iPad vs Mac
There are exceptions, areas in which the iPad under-serves customers’ needs. The problem for the iPad is that these are the same areas in which either the iPhone or the Mac are already better-suited to the task at hand.
A Mac is Better Than an iPad for…
Workplace Productivity – The Mac has an exposed file system, physical keyboard, a pixel-accurate pointing device, and multitasking applications, all of which contribute to more efficient workflows.
Power Computing – There are some professional tasks that require powerful processors, expansion ports, large storage devices, multiple displays, etc. These features are only available on a PC.
An iPhone is Better Than an iPad for…
Taking Pictures – The iPhone is more portable and more discreet, which means it takes more and better photographs. It usually has a better lens and sensor, too.
Messaging & Social Media – It’s easier to stay connected to family and friends on the iPhone. Because it’s smaller than the iPad, it’s much more likely to be in your pocket or purse. Because it’s sold with carrier subsidies, it’s far more likely to have a mobile data plan, which ensures you rarely miss an important message.
Way-Finding via GPS – An iPhone is better than an iPad at GPS navigation, for the same reasons as it’s better at messaging: portability and cellular data. This is true even in spite of having a smaller display.
So What’s the Point of the iPad?
The iPad can’t get better at these tasks without becoming either more like an iPhone or more like a Mac. For the iPad to become just as good as the iPhone, it would need to be smaller, equipped with a better camera, and sold with carrier subsidies and mobile data plans. But this would turn it into “just a big iPhone.” So this can’t be iPad’s future.
For the iPad to become just as good as the Mac, it would need to be larger, faster, equipped with expansion ports, and powered by software that supports legacy features like windowed applications and an exposed file system. But this would turn the iPad into a Macbook Pro with a touch screen and a detachable keyboard. This can’t be iPad’s future, either.
I think the future of the iPad is for it to disappear, absorbed at the low end by iPhones with large displays and at the high end by Macs running a more iOS-like flavor of OS X.
Anecdotal evidence abounds, but it would be nice if there was publicly-available data to back up my claim. ↩