I wrote on the 10th anniversary of the iPad’s announcement a few days ago and I was far from the only one. Like mine, most of the articles that I read were largely positive and at least saw the potential for continued improvement, if not a bright future for Apple’s tablet platform.
However, not all opinions of the iPad are so positive after ten years. Surprisingly, Apple fans Jon Gruber of Daring Fireball and Ben Thompson of Stratechery have two of the most dire takes. Sometimes us fans are the toughest critics. While I respect the opinions of both in most instances, I agree with very little of what either has to say here.
So let’s get into what they think about the iPad. Gruber had this to say in closing:
The iPad at 10 is, to me, a grave disappointment. Not because it’s “bad”, because it’s not bad — it’s great even — but because great though it is in so many ways, overall it has fallen so far short of the grand potential it showed on day one. To reach that potential, Apple needs to recognize they have made profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined. I worry that iPadOS 13 suggests the opposite — that Apple is steering the iPad full speed ahead down a blind alley.
I honestly can’t disagree more, but more on that in a moment.
Then there’s Ben Thompson’s take, which simply feels like an extension of Gruber’s, especially since he cites him specifically. Those two are pretty tight, so I guess this isn’t a big surprise. The most notable thing he has to say is that the iPad is somehow “tragic.” He explains why he believes this, but again, I’m not buying. Somewhat flawed? Sure. Incomplete? Definitely. Tragic? Can we seriously dial down the drama by at least half?
It seems that the biggest issue that both Gruber and Thompson have with the current iPad, specifically iPadOS, is the multitasking interface and its gestures. Again, I disagree. While they certainly are not perfect and they can be difficult to master, what’s really happening here is gradual evolution. It is certainly slower than I would prefer, but in my opinion, the additional capabilities that the current multitaking methods bring have a far more positive impact on the platform than any negatives that come from how complicated they are.
Both gentlemen also mention the current state of the iPad app ecosystem, which I have also lamented at times. However, I think the real problem they have with the iPad is less about these specifics and more about pining for an original purpose and design that is no longer necessary or relevant. They seem to miss the obvious fact that the device that Steve Jobs introduced sitting in a chair on stage has nothing beyond a niche role in today’s tech world.
Both articles lovingly refer to Jobs’ iPad reveal and the first couple of years of the platform under his direction. Just before the quote above, Gruber also specifically longs for the past:
I like my iPad very much, and use it almost every day. But if I could go back to the pre-split-screen, pre-drag-and-drop interface I would. Which is to say, now that iPadOS has its own name, I wish I could install the iPhone’s one-app-on-screen-at-a-time, no-drag-and-drop iOS on my iPad Pro. I’d do it in a heartbeat and be much happier for it.
In my humble opinion, this is absolutely ridiculous. I know it’s just Gruber’s person opinion, but a desire to kneecap iPadOS so he can go back to the “good old days” shows that it’s really his mentality that’s headed down the blind alley. If iPadOS were there today, the iPad would be in about the same position saleswise as the Apple TV.
It seems to me that neither John Gruber or Ben Thompson can shake a dated vision of what the iPad should have become:
Jobs look of wonderment says more than his words:
I’m blown away with this stuff. Playing your own instruments, or using the smart instruments, anyone can make music now, in something that is this thick and weights 1.3 pounds. It’s unbelievable…this is no toy. This is something you can use for real work.
GarageBand, even more than iWork the year before, was the sort of app that was only possible on an iPad. Sure, it shared a name with its Mac counterpart, but the magic came from the fact that it had little else in common.
And then Jobs died, and I’ve never been able to shake the sense that this particular vision of the iPad died with him.
Here’s the problem with this entire argument, most especially Job’s comment about “real work”: It wasn’t real. Not yet, at least. iWork and GarageBand were to the iPad what WiiSports was to the Wii. They were great proof of concepts that did work, but weren’t practical for most developers to reproduce. Thompson then tries to flip the argument over on Apple, saying they priced these apps too low as if App Store pricing by 2010 was their fault. By the time the iPad came out, $5 was already expensive for an app and that wasn’t Apple’s doing.
As I mentioned above, all of these comments point back to the iPad that Steve Jobs introduced 10 years ago and then elaborated on the following year with the iPad 2. That iPad no longer exists today. That iPad couldn’t exist today, at least not successfully. The market that clearly existed for a “3rd device” in 2010 evaporated a few years later as smartphones got bigger and laptops got SSDs and touchscreens. If you are a consumption-only tablet today, you are a Kindle Fire. When was the last time anyone cared about a Fire beyond them being dirt cheap? Exactly.
This longing for the past is divorced from what actually happened. The market for the iPad leveled off and then crashed and fell apart quickly because smartphones and laptops squeezed it. Then you also had the fact that iPads tend to last when cared for and ended up having a fairly long upgrade cycle. Apple was no longer bringing in as many new iPad customers and their existing customers were no longer upgrading regularly. Because of this, Apple HAD to re-invent the device, at least on some levels.
I’m not going to sit here and say that the current iPad Pro and iPadOS are perfect and couldn’t stand improvement. I’ve written about my various complaints and requests many times. That said, I’m also not going to agree wallowing in nostalgia is actually valid criticism, either. In my opinion, that’s what both Gruber and Thompson (especially Gruber) are doing in their articles.
It seems that they have both forgotten just how bleak things looked for the very iPad Gruber describes five years ago. Apple not pushing the platform faster is a big reason why sales stalled before the release of the iPad Pro. If Apple hadn’t moved in this current direction, it would no longer be a viable mass-market product that is still a part of the public consciousness.
In closing, I just want to point out that the iPad and iPadOS are not etched in stone as they stand today. You can bet on seeing multiple new features in iPadOS 14 this Summer at WWDC. Apple has been evolving the iPad more rapidly since the release of the iPad Pro back in 2015 and that speed should only increase now that the OS has been put on its own development track. No feature on the iPad has changed more than multitasking over that period, so even if you agree with Gruber and Thomson, don’t write off the iPad as tragic, or a failure just yet. Step back from the ledge and just give it some time.