No One's Buying iPads Because iPads are Forever

By Brian Barrett on at

Today, Apple trotted out its quarterly earnings, as public companies will do. Massive revenue! iPhone sales up! Mac sales up! iPad sales… well. Okay, so not everything was a hit. But don't confuse Apple's declining tablet sales with the vanishing of the iPad. Tablets aren't dying; they just live forever.

It's not that Apple's not selling any iPads at all; it still moved 12.3 million tablets over the summer. But that's down 13 per cent from a year ago, an opposite trajectory to the growth that the iPhone and Mac lines experienced in the same time. It's caused a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth among Apple observers—what a job description!—but it doesn't mean that tablets in general or the iPad in specific are over.

Here's the iPad's real growth problem: If you bought one in the last two and a half years, you have no reason buy another one. None whatsoever. Does your iPad have a Retina display? Good. You can replace it when you accidentally drop it in the toilet, and no sooner.

That's not to say iPads don't get progressively better year after year, because they do, because that's how the steady march of technology works. If you want a tablet to play with, though, there's a very good chance you've already bought one by now. One that still works just fine.

Now try to name one feature the iPad has picked up since iPad 3 that's worth £500, or more likely that's worth the trouble of selling your old iPad to help pay for a new one. Thinner? It was already pretty damn thin. Lighter? It was already pretty damn light. Better guts? Touch ID? Your iPad is fast enough for what you need it to do. And what are the chances you'll even run into an iPad Air 2 out in the wild that will show you exactly you're missing out on?

And that's just the big iPad! The poor iPad mini has it even worse, cannibalised by the giant iPhone 6 Plus and barely updated after a year. Apple could hardly bring itself to mention the mini at its iPad event last week. Surely you can't be expected to buy it.

It's increasingly clear that the iPad's biggest problem is its long, long refresh cycle, one without any strong call to action beyond "lazy, opulent Christmas gift." Compare that to the iPhone, which people replace every two years at most, or even the MacBook, which draws in legions of new students every September. Once you have an iPad, it's your iPad, and you either keep using it or get bored and turn it into a recipe book.

Tim Cook acknowledged as much on today's earnings call:

What you do see is that people hold onto their iPad longer than they do a phone. Because we've only been in this business for four years, we don't know what the upgrade cycle will be for people.

Here's the good news though; that's not a problem for you, and it doesn't say anything about the usefulness of tablets in general, now or in the future. I still believe that a tablet is a great device to have in the house; I use it to watch movies when I travel or comic books in bed, and there's no device that's better at either of those things. I think it's still a better second screen than a laptop can be, and a much more affordable outside of a bulky Chromebook.

All of which is to say that the rumors of the iPad's demise have been greatly exaggerated. If anything, the biggest knock against the iPad is that it has staying power. There's an endless parade of dead gadgets that would have given anything for that to be their biggest problem.

Top art by Michael Hession