The iPad occupies a unique place in the annals of tech history. Upon its release in 2010, Apple’s first stab at a tablet quickly set sales records. Not only did early iPad sales outpace early iPhone sales, but the iPad quickly became one of the fastest selling consumer electronics products of all time.
In turn, Apple CEO Tim Cook couldn’t help but be effusive when describing the iPad’s longterm potential.
“I really believe,” Tim Cook said during a January 2012 earnings conference call, “as do many others in the company believe, that there will come a day when the tablet market, in units, is larger than the PC market.”
And for a while, it was hard not to get on board with Cook’s optimism. Even those who were initially skeptical of the iPad’s potential to dethrone the Mac couldn’t ignore the device’s impressive and borderline unprecedented sales growth.
The iPad’s once-auspicious journey, however, would eventually take an unexpected detour. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, soaring sales began to taper off, even as Apple began to introduce newer and more advanced models. Today, iPad sales are still slumping. During Apple’s most recent earnings report, the company revealed that year over year iPad sales fell by 25% while iPad related revenue dropped by 20%. Hardly an aberration, iPad sales have been dropping for well over two years at this point. And whereas Tim Cook once took to earnings conference calls to praise the iPad, he now finds himself forced to defend the iPad against a barrage of analyst questions.
Yesterday, Apple released a new 9.7-inch iPad Pro and it stands to reason that this is Apple’s last chance to truly inject a bit of life into a faltering product line. The iPad Air 2 was a solid device, but again, consumers have made it clear that it will take a whole a lot more than a thinner and faster device to increase sales. And sure, the original iPad Pro looks like a compelling device, but let’s be honest: a gargantuan 12.7-inch tablet isn’t going to become a mainstream hit.
Which leaves the recently introduced 9.7-inch iPad Pro as Apple’s only hope. The new iPad Pro is certainly jam-packed with a number of great new features, all within a more accessible 9.7-inch form factor. In addition to a blazing fast A9x processor, the new iPad Pro comes with much improved display technology, an advanced camera system, and support for the Apple Pencil. If Apple can’t get consumers excited about its new iPad Pro, there’s a good chance that iPad sales will never again reach previous highs, especially now that Apple has two larger-screened iPhones in its product lineup.
As for what’s behind the ongoing and persistent drop in iPad sales, it’s hard to say. While some have pointed to a prolonged refresh cycle that’s more akin to PCs than to smartphones, others have opined that the iPad, and tablets in general, were never well-positioned to truly replace the PC.
To that point, Slate wrote the following in late 2014:
The truth is that the iPad was never cut out to replace the PC, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it hasn’t. And, just as the “death of the PC” narrative has been oversold, it’s way too early to write off the tablet’s future. It’s simply time to adjust expectations.
The iPad’s sales woes don’t mean it’s a bad product. Apple customers consistently report satisfaction with their tablets, and the iPad continues to command a dominant share of the market in the face of intensifying competition from Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon, and others.
But there are inherent limitations to the device’s ubiquity. As great as it is for watching movies on an airplane or checking email over breakfast, it still can’t match the power and versatility of a desktop or laptop as a primary workstation.
Looking ahead, it’ll be interesting to see how iPad sales pick up or fall off once the new iPad Pro becomes available. At this point, one has to imagine that Apple would be more than happy if it could, at the very least, manage to keep iPad sales stagnant.