The iPad Problem: Why Apple refuses to let tablets reach their full potential

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This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
The iPad Problem: Why Apple refuses to let tablets reach their full potential
Out of the three devices that were announced at Google I/O, the Pixel Tablet was probably the one to receive the least amount of attention. While I am personally not all that invested in the latter as well, there is one particular aspect of the Pixel Tablet that is worth taking a close look at.

Namely, the fact that the device seeks to redefine the main purpose of a tablet in the first place. It seems Google’s decision to opt for a different approach, which places an emphasis on smart home functionality, is the direct result of how tablets have evolved over the last couple of years.

This will be the main topic of this article. Namely, what are tablets supposed to be, has their purpose been redefined and, ultimately, do they make sense in 2023? Now is the time to mention that none of these questions have definitive answers. Nevertheless, they can still be treated from the point of view of someone that has been rooting for the tablet form to succeed for the better part of a decade.

The Purpose of Modern-Day Tablets


First of all, most people might still recall the ambitious goal tablets had when they first began gaining traction. For a time, it looked like these devices could eventually replace laptops and computers as the sole dedicated productivity-focused devices consumers reach out to on a daily basis.

Needless to say, this vision failed to materialize and, barring the slight bump in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, tablet shipments have more or less plateaued and are expected to remain much lower than those of traditional PCs.



Furthermore, in the last couple of years, the tablets that have had the most commercial success simply do not seek to emulate the 2-in-1 fantasy in the first place. I have decided to refer to this phenomenon as ‘the iPad problem’, given that Apple is the undisputed king of tablets right now. Basically, the current most popular tablets neither can nor seek to replace your laptop. They aim to be a flashy gadget you use alongside a computer (when you don’t have your phone in your hand, that is).



It is hardly surprising that the Cupertino company has successfully managed to convince users that they need three or more Apple products in their lives. But what exactly are the implications of this strategy… and where does it leave the iPad, the most distensible out of the bunch?

The iPad: Stellar Hardware meats Subpar Software



Over the last couple of years, Apple’s iPad lineup has come a long way in the hardware department, especially when it comes to the high-end iPad Pro models. The adoption of the M1 chip gave the Cupertino company’s tablets an unprecedented advantage over their competitors - not only over Android devices like the Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra, but also over those that run full-on Windows, like the Microsoft Surface 9.

It should be noted that even less premium iPad models like the iPad Air (2022) still offer superior performance to tablets in the same price range. In a sense, hardware-wise, Apple’s iPads are as good as it gets, with one notable exception that cannot be overlooked. Every iPad except the 12.9” iPad Pro is stuck with an LCD panel. Luckily, this should change in the foreseeable future, as Apple continues its transition to OLED.

This means that sooner rather than later, the iPad should be as close to tablet perfection as possible. Which is one of the main things that draws the attention of users. When coupled with the perks of the Apple ecosystem, it is not very difficult to explain the unparalleled appeal of the iPad. In fact, the allure is so potent that it manages to captivate consumers despite one eye-glaring shortcoming: iPadOS.


It is almost comical to think that the company that put a desktop-class processor in a tablet is also responsible for the latter running an operating system that is essentially an upscaled version of iOS. Hardware-wise, the iPad might be closer to a laptop, but in the software department it bears an almost uncanny resemblance to the iPhone.

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This not only comes down to the very nature of iPadOS, but also to the latter’s reliance on the App Store. There is almost no app that can make full use of the capabilities of the M1/M2 chip. To add insult to injury, even apps like Final Cut Pro come with severely limited functionality, without any obvious justification. Which brings me to the gist of the matter.

Do you really need an 11”+ iPhone?



The evolution of the iPad (and of the tablet from factor as a whole) has been heavily influenced by the way smartphones have developed in the last decade. One of the main reasons for this is the fact they, unlike laptops and computers, share the primary input method of touchscreen. Consequently, tablet operating systems and their functionality are built upon Android and iOS, more so than Windows and MacOS.

Regardless of how many advanced multitasking features Apple implements, iPadOS will never have the software capabilities to make full use of the iPad’s exceptional hardware, without a major revamp. Unfortunately, the Cupertino company is reluctant to bring iPadOS in line with a desktop OS (more on that later) and is trying to position it as something of a middle ground between MacOS and iOS.

Where does that leave us? The iPad becomes a tertiary product, one that can offer neither the portability of the iPhone, nor the productivity of the MacBook. At best, it is used as a dedicated media consumption device, at worst - as a glorified toy to give to your toddler.


Granted, this is not inherently a bad thing. However, such an approach inevitably limits the potential of the iPad. Worse still, other manufacturers are following in Apple’s footsteps and producing devices that seek to be jack of some trades and master of none. By extension, tablets are not only unnecessary for most users, but also a stagnating form factor attacked on all fronts.

Between flagships with large footprints like the Galaxy S23 Ultra, notepad-style foldables like the Galaxy Z Fold 4, and laptops with touchscreen displays like the Lenovo Yoga 9i, there is really little room left for glorified upscaled smartphones.

Will Apple change course?


The last paragraph offers yet another explanation for the lackluster tablet sales… and Apple knows it, because the iPad is no exception to the norm. Essentially, the company is intentionally crippling its own device so as to allow the MacBook to shine.

Whether a truly capable iPad is a real threat to the MacBook is a question in and of its own. However, it will not become easier to answer by giving the iPad even more raw power with the next-generation M3 chip?

   

The main reason why I am revisiting this dilemma is the fact that there are many rumors indicating a number of important iPad upgrades are expected to come in 2024. This includes not only the M3 chip and an OLED panel for the Pro models, but also possible design tweaks and the launch of a gargantuan 14-inch iPad.

With the iPad set to become even bigger, more powerful and even more expensive, there is virtually no excuse for confining it to the current limitations of iPadOS. If the iPad continues to be defined by Apple’s business strategy and how the company perceives its role within its product portfolio, I see no purpose for further upgrades.

The iPad should either reach its full potential, possibly at the expense of the MacBook, or continue to be a niche device, used primarily by those who are too young to own an iPhone. Lastly, no one is saying the iPad should run MacOS - but it certainly has to have software (more) befitting of its hardware capabilities. Everything else is nothing but an overkill.
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