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The iPad's big moment

Dan Moren | Aug. 24, 2015
Apple's dug itself into a hole with the iPad, but now is the time to change everything (again).

ipad mini 3

We’ve got a big fall ahead of us. New versions of iOS and OS X. As ever, a new iPhone (or iPhones). A new Apple TV. But for the first time in a while, it’s the iPad that seems to be getting a lot of the attention and rumormongering.

Part of that is the tablet’s contentious place in Apple’s lineup. The general perception is that the iPad isn’t doing well, with dwindling sales growth, an increasingly unclear niche, and lackluster improvements. I agree with my esteemed colleague Mr. Snell that many of these problems are overstated, and the iPad isn’t about to tank.

But in some ways, Apple has dug itself into a hole with the iPad. It’s not a bottomless pit, or even a chasm with walls so steep that the company can’t clamber out, but it does present some challenges.

The long now

The upgrade cycle has been repeatedly suggested as one of the major reasons for declining growth in iPad sales. Either users of older devices aren’t buying new ones yet, or they’re not planning on buying new ones at all.

Case in point: The other day, I got into a discussion with a friend, who lamented that his iPad 2 running iOS 8 wasn’t good for much, even when all he wanted to do was browse the web or view PDFs. He was disappointed that, for all he had paid for the device, it could no longer function the way it used to, which he attributed to “forced obsolescence.”

Thing is, there’s nothing “forced” about it. It’s just genuine, good old-fashioned, straight-up obsolescence. The iPad 2 was the second generation of a brand-new product category that was set for rapid evolution. (Remember the iPad 3, which was replaced a scant six months later with the fourth-generation iPad?)

The heart of the problem for users of those older devices is that surprising longevity of Apple’s products. The company continues to maintain software support for its long-in-the-tooth devices—but just because you can install the latest and greatest operating system on a device doesn’t mean it will work well. And it’s not surprising that Apple isn’t going to spend the time ensuring that its newest software runs smoothly on hardware from four or five years ago. From a purely business perspective, those customers have already made their purchase.

Of course, there we enter a Catch–22 scenario. Because if you don’t update to the newest OS, you won’t just be missing features—you’ll also increasingly encounter apps that simply won’t run on the older OS. Apple pushes developers to embrace its newest technologies, which often means raising requirements to the most recent OS. So even if your older device works, it may not do everything you want it to do, whether you update the OS or not. But replacing the entire device can be prohibitively expensive, since you can’t get subsidies on iPads.

 

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