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Apple Is Confusing Tablet Leadership With Awesomeness

By Chris Maxcer
Oct 23, 2014 7:04 AM PT
iPad Air 2

The new super thin iPad Air 2 is starting to get tepid reviews, most of which begrudgingly call it the "best tablet" in the market, while admitting it's boring. Instead of talking up all the great things about how it makes their lives better or fun, the focus is starting to turn to the glaringly obvious annoyances about what it doesn't do well at all. These criticisms aren't coming mainly from Apple haters -- they're coming from Apple's friends.

Joanna Stern, who reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal, gave it a perfect back-handed compliment: "The best tablet needs to work harder."

More specifically, it needs to get off the "one-app-at-a-time" limitation. On an iPad Air 2, you can't have two apps open at once, which means trying to multitask on even basic things is a pain the butt. If you're trying to reference a website that has information on it that you need to express in an email, for example, you have to clumsily move back and forth between Safari and Mail. Frustrating.

iPad lover Walter Mossberg of Re/Code called the iPad Air 2 "better," but asked this question: "Is 'better' enough?" He flat out said he wasn't excited about Apple's new iPads. "Oh, and it has a better rear camera, for those who take a lot of pictures and videos with 10-inch tablets. And it's available in an optional gold color," he wrote.

If you can't hear the sarcasm in that line, surely you can hear the yawn behind it?

The main reason to get an iPad Air 2 instead of sticking with last year's iPad Air, Mossberg said, is "future-proofing" -- so that future versions of iOS will run better on it with the better graphics and processor. Spend more now, basically, just in case you need more oomph later.

Ouch.

Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times headed down a similar path, acknowledging the new iPad Air 2 is the best tablet on the market today -- but then veering into the question of whether most people even need a great tablet. Do you really need a super skinny, super-fast tablet, when you probably can get away with a less capable device?

What Apple Is Utterly Failing to Do

Apple is in a fantastic position right now, shattering sales records for most of its products left and right. The hubris in Cupertino, as humble as it appears on stage and on conference calls with investors, is the notion that perhaps because Apple is selling products better than everyone else, that means Apple is doing great things. You can't argue with sales numbers, right?

Wrong. Just because a kid chooses to buy the least burnt cookie at a school bake sale, that doesn't mean the least burnt cookie is insanely great. Just because the bake sale enters new markets where burnt cookies are in short supply or previously were unavailable, that doesn't mean the burnt cookie couldn't have been baked in a better way.

Sales -- despite what the world of business might think -- is not a one-to-one correlate with awesomeness.

Apple's fantastic sales generally start with product awesomeness but then continue on through the momentum that Apple's ecosystem of products and apps provides. At this point, I'm not considering buying an iPad because it's so thin, because it has a glare-free screen, because the camera is improved, or because it has a Touch ID home button. Nope. The only reason why I'm considering an iPad at all is because of my investment in the Apple ecosystem.

Apple CEO Tim Cook wants to attribute the negative slide in iPad unit sales over the last few quarters to not fully understanding the upgrade cycles inherent in tablet purchases. He's only partially correct -- at least publicly. He might fully understand the real reason, in which case he surely can't admit something like this: "The iPad is dropping in sales because Apple has not been able to come up with new features that spark the imagination of consumers and give them excuses to buy before they truly need to."

Need a case in point? Siri.

If I remember this correctly, Steve Jobs bought the team behind Siri, which had produced a working app that ran on all iPhones. Then, more than a year later, after juicing up Siri, Apple included Siri on the iPhone 4s... and killed the app so it wouldn't work on older iPhones. If you wanted to experience Siri, you had to get an iPhone 4s.

Now, does anyone really need Siri? Definitely not then -- and maybe not even now. A smarter Siri? Sure.

The point is, Siri was a feature leap forward that was interesting and potentially fun. More importantly, Siri functioned as a psychological excuse to upgrade or buy an iPhone 4s. I believe Jobs was intimately familiar with features that could act as catalysts to trigger consumers to buy something they might not actually need.

It seems as if Apple -- while riding four years of amazing iPad sales -- not only has failed to imagine needing a new catalyst, but also -- more importantly -- has failed to understand the core desires of a customer base that wants Apple to deliver more value in the iPad form factor.

Making a Killer iPad Would Be Easy

What's sad right now is that Apple doesn't even have to spark our imaginations with something wildly new. No, Apple easily could rejuvenate iPad sales -- not by taking it to new markets, and not by getting in bed with IBM to build touch-friendly enterprise apps, but simply by paying attention to what customers think they want.

Sounds anti-Apple, actually.

Apple only has to do three things with its iPad Air 2 to make people get excited about it:

  1. Deliver side-by-side app multitasking;
  2. Offer individual user accounts on one iPad; and
  3. Create a physical, mobile keyboard solution.

Practically, the side-by-side app multitasking works because it would let someone actually do the ultra-mobile work they want on an iPad. Apple can talk about creating a new series of enterprise apps that will work great on the iPad, but it's sad that simple, basic, common tasks appear to be ignored.

What happens if you're an executive looking at an enterprise dashboard and you need to send an email about what's on the screen? Are you going to take a snapshot photo of the iPad screen with your iPhone to reference and then email it? Or use the fancy app on your iPad but send the email via your iPhone? Oh, no, the expensive enterprise app would have communication features built right into the dashboard itself! (So instead of making progress now, we can wait two more years until most apps are more integrated in ways that predict user needs.)

Right now, Apple also has no multi-user solution for the iPad. This means families have to share an iPad with all of its accounts or buy their own individual iPads -- yeah, more sales for Apple!

From a practical standpoint, this means that a dad who buys a new iPad Air 2 and wants to be able to spend a bit more time in the morning with his small child while satisfying the email and calendaring demands of his job can't easily let the small child touch the iPad for fear of messing up the important stuff. Deleting email or critical calendar meetings, for instance. Sending tweets from a business Twitter account that could get him fired.

Never mind handing an iPad to a friend or distant family member. The lack of a guest account -- at minimum -- tells us that Apple is either greedy, tone-deaf, or unable to get the job done with iOS.

The new Touch ID would be perfect for this -- letting kids log in and play their sandboxed kid games while protecting dad's email. So easy! I am flabbergasted that Apple hasn't managed to figure this out.

More importantly for Apple, this feature would be a buying catalyst -- an excuse to spend the money on an iPad Air 2 with Touch ID in the hope of getting through the day in a brighter, easier way.

Other manufacturers are doing this. Amazon is so far ahead of Apple in terms of family-friendly apps, controls, and accounts that it's not even funny. Sure, Amazon doesn't have the sales that Apple does or the reach -- but at least Amazon understands that parents want to let their kids play fun learning games without constantly standing over them hypermanaging the access.

Once a family buys into the Amazon world, it's not so hard to see them buying in again. Its ecosystem is getting better, too.

So, instead of producing something really useful that incites existing owners to buy -- and quickly buy again -- Apple is riding its ecosystem and sales channels to make its money. It's a good business plan, but Apple enthusiasts expect more from Apple.

What About That Keyboard?

The mobile keyboard/case/stand that Apple seems to like to joke about -- think Tim Cook's jokes about "refrigerator-toaster" combinations -- is a critical, important catalyst to new iPad sales. In fact, if Apple had just broken down and created a keyboard cover like Microsoft's for the Surface Pro 3 -- no matter how embarrassing such a move would be -- iPad sales would not have been down over the last few quarters. I firmly believe that. Why?

It's not because a keyboard with an iPad is the best, most efficient thing. It's not because tens of millions of people would use it hard. It's because it fills a psychological hole. It provides an excuse to spend hundreds of dollars on something that is not absolutely necessary. If the iPad Air 2 had new magnets placed to hold such a keyboard cover -- boom!

That's the promise of getting more done. That's the promise of an iPad being able to adapt to the needs of the moment, instead of forcing a human to adapt to the limitations of an iPad.

More importantly, it provides a new set of options that let Apple customers choose the family of products that fit their interests and needs most. The keyboard cover for an iPad Air 2? That provides an excuse to buy the fabulous new iMac with Retina 5K display -- with an iPad Air 2 to handle your mobile computing requirements.

The sad thing here, for an Apple watcher, is that Apple likely will continue to confuse massive profits and sales with the notion that it is producing the most attractive devices. Apple is not. Lenovo has a more interesting tablet. Dell has a more interesting camera system on the way.

Apple has produced the best ecosystem, the best total computing package -- and people will buy the iPad Air 2 because of that total package. They will continue to buy into Apple, not because the device is the pinnacle of awesomeness. They will continue to buy into Apple because Apple is -- at least right now -- the stickiest consumer tech company around.

For Apple fans who still want to hold a physical device in their hands and feel a bit of wonder, who want to believe that Apple cares about their experience -- well, the iPad Air 2 just falls flat.


TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com. You can also connect with him on Google+.


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