The iPad has an identity crisis

Unlike the iPhone, the iPad hasn't launched whole new classes of services. And the more Apple does to make iPads competitive with laptops, the more it gets compared to them and comes up short.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

Video: Apple's new iPad Pro takes baby steps towards the future

The "magic piece of glass" that super-sized the iPhone once stood to transplant the heart of mobile computing. In contrast to the Surface, which made the keyboard cover an all-but-required accessory, the iPad was poised to banish physical keyboards from larger mobile devices the way the iPhone "Black-buried" such smartphones.

For a while, it looked as if Apple might succeed. After its release, the iPad soared like a four-cornered cap being tossed by a freshly minted graduates. It started by eviscerating the market for netbooks -- cheap, ergonomically awkward and unprofitable devices that were hated so much by companies in the Windows ecosystem that they might have sent Apple a thank you card. (And yet, years later, even cheaper Windows laptops would return, this time spurred by the threat of Chromebooks.)

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But the iPad -- and its Android-based competitors -- eventually felt gravity's pull. The main reason for the demise of the tablet was the proliferation of larger-screened smartphones. While the smartphone had long ago put the hurt on other portable devices such as MP3 players, portable GPS units, and pocketable cameras, it was unusual to see the smartphone marginalize a device that had become popular after its introduction.

And now, years after portraying the iPad as a laptop's alternative, or as its evolution, the saddling down of the device with clunky covers has resulted in inevitable changes to iOS that also help bridge the laptop gap. To Apple's credit, it has implemented these in a way that largely preserves the quintessence of the iPad experience.

This has led some to think of the a well-accessorized tablet as a laptop, which it's not. For proof, just look at Microsoft. After years of marketing Surface as a tablet that could replace one's laptop and following that with a high-end 2-in-1, it has finally succumbed to practicality by releasing a traditional clamshell.

In a recent column looking at Apple's new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, Carolina Milanesi discusses how the device can complement the Mac, resulting in a two-device solution that offers advantages over using either alone. But Milanesi, who notes that she largely switched over to an iPad for most tasks after the the original iPad's launch, offers that the benefits will vary depending on one's workflow. At best, an iPad-Mac tag team approach is awkward, bulky, and expensive.

That one might want to flow spontaneously from tablet to laptop scenarios sounds like validation for a Windows 2-in-1 device. Of course, Windows has been severely limited as a tablet app platform, but those limitations often don't seem as debilitating when much of those apps' functionality is available in laptop mode or through a full desktop browser (even Edge in Windows S).

The iPad is still a strategic product for Apple. As a relatively inexpensive and flexible device, it has become a key tool in the company's increasingly important enterprise strategy -- useful, for example, as a substitute for cumbersome training or reference manuals. However, this is merely a realization of proposed uses that extend back to some of the earliest tablet PCs.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the iPhone's introduction, we can recount a host of game-changing services that would not exist as we understand them today without the influence of that platform -- Uber, Airbnb, Instagram, Tinder, and WeChat. For years, Apple emphasized how well iOS apps looked and functioned on the iPad, but the tablet has not served as a similar launchpad.

With ARKit, Apple has indeed created a novel use for the iPad, one that turns its magic glass into a magic window that can superimpose any number of ordinary or fantastic objects in your field of view. Viewing augmented reality is a task that is ideally suited to the iPad's combination of large screen and exceptional portability. However, the iPhone's better portability and especially its lighter weight will simply make it a more common tool for these experiences, particularly for extended sessions in which the weight of the iPad will become too much to bear.

In some ways, the iPad's struggles were foretold at its introduction, with Steve Jobs categorizing it as a device that fit between the smartphone and laptop. But it has no hope of making progress against the former and faces a host of competitive challenges against the latter. It is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

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