iPad and Mac—the early years

Whenever Apple announces downward trending sales figures for the iPad—which is to say, every quarter for the past few years—people go on the internet and try to explain why. The prevailing explanation among Apple enthusiasts is that the iPad is so good it just doesn’t have to be replaced very often. That led to a sales bubble in the early years and a decline ever since.

iPad sales

While there’s certainly some truth to that, I don’t think it tells the full story. All it does is lead to another question: Why are people satisfied with four-year-old iPads? For my money, David Sparks has given the best answer to that question.

In my mind, the issue is that users are not pushing the iPad harder to do more work for them, which would naturally end up in users wanting to buy newer, faster, and better iPads. Put simply, I think the issue is software.

At last year’s iPad Pro event Apple made a big deal about how the iPad is powerful enough to replace a PC laptop. I believe for a lot of people that could be true. But it’s not quite there yet because of the software limitations.

If Apple wants to see an increase in iPad sales, I think the answer is making them more useful and getting the word out. Apple should get serious about adding features to iOS that allows users to be more productive in getting their work done.

In other word—words that David wouldn’t be so crude as to use—it’s the software, stupid.

I have a 9.7″ iPad Pro. It’s a nice machine, and I’ve been taking it on business trips in lieu of my old MacBook Air. It’s perfectly fine for many things, but when I really need to get work done I bring the Air. It certainly isn’t because the Air’s hardware is more powerful. Here’s what I get running Geekbench 4 CPU tests (Mac, iPad) on the two devices:

Device Single-core Multi-core
2010 Macbook Air 1355 2291
9.7″ iPad Pro 2907 4737

Undoubtedly, a big reason I’m more productive on the Air is familiarity. As I use the iPad more, I’ll learn how to use it more efficiently. But David’s point still holds: productivity tools on the iPad just aren’t up to the Mac standard. Editorial is no BBEdit. And no combination of Workflow and x-callback-urls can compare with shell scripting, AppleScript, Keyboard Maestro, Hazel, et al.

What’s surprising to me is how slow iPad software has advanced in the seven years since its introduction. I’ve always thought of the iPad as the apotheosis of Steve Jobs’s conception of what a computer should be, what the Mac would have been in 1984 if the hardware were available. But think of what the Mac could do when it was seven years old:

And these were not new in 1991, they’d been around since 1987 or so.

In contrast, the iPad has Split View, which still hasn’t been adopted by some apps; iCloud Drive, which many people are afraid of because of iCloud’s history of unreliability; and Swift Playgrounds, which may be very nice for learning to program but isn’t being used for real apps or personal productivity.

The biggest problem for the iPad is Apple’s unwillingness to let it become its own thing. Development of iOS is driven by the iPhone, which probably shouldn’t have the tools of a regular computer. But the iPad needs at least some of those tools if it’s to fulfill Apple’s promise to be a laptop replacement. Being yoked to the iPhone is holding it back.

I have no interest in Apple’s financial condition per se. I care about it only to the extent that it influences Apple to provide me with good computing devices. I’d love to have my iPad oust my MacBook Air as my primary home computer. But it won’t until Apple gives it (and me) the tools to allow it take over.


  1. It was, unfortunately, not pre-emptive multitasking, which the Mac didn’t get until OS X. ↩︎