Skip to main content

iPad Doomed? Not if Apple Follows MacBook's Lead

The post-PC era may be on hold if Apple's latest sales figures are anything to go by. 

The tech giant reported record results for its fiscal fourth quater, powered by the release of its new iPhones. But the more interesting story is taking place in Apple's other business segments, where Mac sales are hitting new highs while demand for the iPad continues to shrink. 

Specifically, Apple says it sold 5.7 million Macs in the quarter ended Sept. 30, the most Macs ever sold in its September quarter. That's a modest increase from the 5.5 million Macs the company sold in the year-ago quarter, but that, too, set a high-water mark for Apple at the time. Apple is selling all these Macs at the same time the overall PC market is shrinking by 11 percent, according to IDC market research figures cited by Apple CEO Tim Cook.

MORE: Best Apple Laptops

As bright as the Mac picture looks for Apple, the iPad forecast is decidedly grimmer. Apple sold nearly 9.9 million tablets during the quarter. That's a lot more tablets than Mac sales, but it's still a 20 percent drop from 12.3 million iPads the company sold during the 2014 fourth quarter.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. In 2010, back in 2010, then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs suggested the post-PC era had begun. "When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks," Jobs said at a tech conference. "But as people moved more towards urban centers, people started to get into cars. I think PCs are going to be like trucks. Less people will need them. And this transformation is going to make some people uneasy... because the PC has taken us a long way. They were amazing. But it changes."

That change seems to have stalled, at least temporarily. Part of the reason has been Apple's own success at continuing to improve upon its Mac offerings. Its latest MacBook models, for example, continue to turn in strong performance while adding new features like Force Touch trackpads. At the same time, enhancements have come at a seemingly slower pace for tablets, with Apple tweaking the size and form factor of its assorted iPads, but not coming up with the kinds of improvements that make the tablets the primary computing device for most users. Take multitasking, which only became available on some iPad models with the recent iOS 9 update.

MORE: The Best Laptops for Every Need

Apple would counter that the iPad still has plenty going for it, with most customers who buy the company's tablets expressing satisfaction with the product. Apple executives cite numbers from market research firm NPD that says Apple enjoys a 73 percent share of the market for tablets priced higher than $200.

Apple is anticipating improved fortunes for the iPad with the release of the iPad Pro in November. Talking to analysts after announcing Apple's quarterly sales figures, Cook called the iPad Pro "the most powerful iPad we've ever made" and talked about how it will empower a new class of apps for Apple's portable devices. From what we've seen of the iPad Pro, the tablet's larger screen and useful accessories should appeal to users who place a premium of productivity. That, coupled with the holiday buying season, should help spur iPad sales in the coming quarter.

But if Apple is hoping to see something beyond the occasional seasonal spike for the iPad, it would do well to take a cue from its more established -- and thriving -- Mac business. It's the Mac laptops, after all, that have adopted Force Touch trackpads that activate additional features depending on how hard you press. Apple's latest iPhones offer that capability, too, in the form of 3D Touch, which adds the ability to preview things with a press or summon a menu of quick actions. 3D Touch hasn't found its way to the iPad yet. Instead, apart from the super-sized iPad, Apple's biggest tablet news this fall has been to introduce the iPad Mini 4, which saw few changes from its predecessor. 

It's telling that in Microsoft's latest hardware moves, headlined by the Surface Book, Apple's long-time rival is targeting the MacBook Pro and not any iPad that Apple has on offer. That's a compliment to the first-rate laptops coming out of Cupertino. But it's also a sign that Apple needs to step up its tablet game if the pace of the post-PC era is ever going to pick up.