Could signs of sanity finally be returning to the tablet market?

At Apple's Q2 earnings call with analysts, top executives said iPad sales came in at the high end of the company's expectations, but under outsider estimates. Macs are holding their own. Could this be a sign that sanity is returning when it comes to real productivity?
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

Before Apple's Wednesday earnings call, a number of analysts expressed concern about soft iPad sales, down 37 and 16 percent, sequentially and year-over-year, respectively. During the call, Apple executives offered a number of excuses. But what may be happening — across the industry and mobile platforms — is the understanding by customers that while an iPad is great and necessary technology, it can't replace a real computer in a real workflow. In the Apple context, that means Macintosh.


Could signs of sanity finally be returning to tablet market?

According to Apple executives, the latest fluctuation in sales was due to the company attempting to keep a certain quantity and mix of units in the channel, and differences in demand at various times of the year. Luca Maestri, vice president of finance and corporate controller, said it was all about channel inventories.

However, sales of Macintosh appear to be holding their own. On the call CEO Tim Cook said:

We saw 4.1 million Macs compared to just under 4 million in the year ago quarter. Thanks to strong performance from MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, Macs have now gained global market share for 31 of the last 32 quarters. Response to Mavericks has been great, and we are very proud of the fact that so many of our Mac customers are taking advantage of the most advanced and secured experience possible. We ended the quarter with Mac channel inventory slightly below our four to five week target range.

Remember that the winter quarter, Apple's fiscal Q2, is traditionally a slow one for the company. This quarter's Mac unit sales were down 14 percent sequentially, but up five percent from the year-ago quarter. The company doesn't break out models or mobile/desktop stats. Apple sold four times more iPads than Macs, but made only 27 percent more revenue.

Check Out: What hurt are iPad sales putting on Macs?

To my eyes, this isn't solid evidence of the "post-PC era," where most computing would be done by a tablet and not a PC. While there were four times more iPads sold than Macs, sales of Macs aren't falling as would be expected.

In a post to the Monday Note blog before Apple's call, Jean-Louis Gassée took a critical look at the rise of the iPad and its problems in a real workflow. I've said similar things over the years.

The iPad rose and rose. It won legions of admirers because of its simplicity: No windows (no pun), no file system, no cursor keys (memories of the first Mac). Liberated from these old-style personal computer ways, the iPad cannibalized PC sales and came to be perceived as the exemplar Post-PC device.

But that truly blissful simplicity exacts a high price. I recall my first-day disappointment when I went home and tried to write a Monday Note on my new iPad. It’s difficult — impossible, really — to create a real-life composite document, one that combines graphics, spreadsheet data, rich text from several sources and hyperlinks. For such tasks, the Rest of Us have to go back to our PCs and Macs.

Gassée noted that there are people who "happily" do productivity work on their iPads. He said most use one of the iPad keyboards on the market. He said people are finding that they want to use both an iPad and a classical PC, in the Mac context, a Mac.

The iPad’s limitations extend beyond classic office productivity tasks. I just tried to build an itinerary for a long postponed road trip, driving all the way from Key West Florida to Palo Alto. On a Mac, you can easily “print to PDF” to produce a map for each leg of the trip. Then you use the wonderful Preview app (I salute its author and dedicated maintainer) to emend unneeded pages, drag and drop, combine and rearrange the PDF files into a single document. Don’t try this on an iPad: How would you “print-to-PDF” a map page, let alone combine such pages?

Despite the inspiring ads, Apple’s hopes for the iPad overshot what the product can actually deliver. Although there are a large numbers of iPad-only users, there’s also a substantial population of dual-use customers for whom both tablets and conventional PCs are now part of daily life.

There appears to be a madness among computer users about mobility. Perhaps it's some accupressure point in the shoulder that's triggered by carrying a 15-inch laptop in a shoulder bag for an entire day or two or more. They can't take it any more. I recall hearing people say they could now give up their laptop or desktop computer and replace it with an iPhone and a portable keyboard. Really? So much more so with the arrival of the iPad.

I recall hearing the same tropes way back in the 1990s following the release of Apple's Newton MessagePad and the Palm III. And I tried using them on trips to replace my laptop. Fail.

Here are a couple of thoughts that come to mind:

• iOS hardware and software provide a capable platform for all kinds of interesting, useful, and productive tasks in a mobile environment. However, they don't (can't) offer the same usage, or workflow model, as found with a laptop or desktop. Like Gassée, I may use a number of applications and files for a single task on my MacBook Pro, moving data quickly here and there. I've automated some of these tasks with scripts. This integration is impossible on an iPad.

Because of the limitations of iOS, with its sandboxing and difficult file handling, the iPad (and iPhone) are for their users, much like the closed hardware and software turnkey systems of the early days of computing. The more successful apps are packed with functions — they try to do everything because they have to and it works out best for their customers. Some developers understand this and others don't.

• This new realism about tablet usability could signal an opportunity for Macintosh. Customers appreciate its level of integration, which the Wintel platform has not been able to approach. And then there's the continuing problematic reputation of the PC platform, which continues to be in sorry shape.

Perhaps I should have said that this will be a golden opportunity for Cupertino to pitch the "Apple ecosystem:" meaning the deep integration of Apple hardware (on both mobile devices and Macs), operating systems, Apple software (from Apple and its third-party developers), Apple's iCloud services and its various online and bricks-and-mortar stores. A refreshed halo. 

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