Seven years later, we’re still asking the wrong questions about the iPad

When Apple’s iPad was first announced seven years ago today, some people wondered whether it would work as a giant phone. It’s hard to imagine now, given that talking on the phone is a dying art form. But this morning I was reminded (thanks, Facebook) of a photo someone took of me on January 27th, 2010 using a large piece of cardboard as a proxy for the real iPad; it was pressed up to the side of my face like I was making a phone call with it. It was intentionally ridiculous. It was the wrong question to ask.

It turns out that having 3G wireless — or 4G or 5G — on a device like the iPad is an important feature, not for making phone calls but for constant access to data services, in an era when our personal computing needs have surpassed anything we could have imagined a decade ago.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “wrong” questions, inspired partly by a Benedict Evans blog post on the topic. In the tech media, we often examine products based on the products we already know, and so we end up with the wrong context. The iPad, when it was first introduced, was a good example of that. And it’s still happening today.

Another question we had about the iPad when it launched: isn’t it just an oversized iPhone or iPod — not a device for phone calls, but literally a bigger version of a glass touchscreen gadget that showed a bunch of apps? “Is it a Thneed or an iPod XL?” Kara Swisher wrote onAllThingsD. “Then [Steve] Jobs brought out the iPad, which looks much like an oversized iPhone,” ArsTechnica wrote. “This is essentially just a really big iPod Touch,” an analyst toldThe New York Times.

In retrospect, the right question to ask was whether the iPad could actually justify its own existence; whether it could hold court in the space between smartphones and laptops, forming a category of its own, the way netbooks did from around 2007 to 2011. Steve Jobs teed us up for that, jabbing at netbooks during the iPad unveiling. But for a lot of us, our minds went straight to the familiar, and our initial questions were based on iterations of that.

iPhone and iPad home screens

That doesn’t mean we were wrong to question what the thing was meant for in general. The iPad, in my opinion, still has a weaker identity than a smartphone or laptop. More than 300 million have been sold since it first launched in 2010, which is no small number (fewer than the number of iPhones sold, more than the number of Macs sold). But iPad sales have slowed in recent quarters. And despite Apple’s efforts to make it a “pro” device, it hasn’t escaped the consumption-not-creation description.

Which is a neat little segue to the more recent question around the iPad: whether it is or isn’t a laptop replacement. Once Apple put out a pro iPad — huge screen! desktop-grade processor! physical keyboard! — all of the parts were in place to consider it a laptop-killer.

But even that’s the wrong question, because it’s not about whether you need a iPad-laptop; the right question is what does a computer in 2017 need to be? The ingredients we have for computers in 2017 are vastly different from the ones we had in 2010. Asking whether it’s a laptop replacement also implies that it’s about form factor; when really, it’s about cloud services, and operating systems, and whether the melding of a desktop OS and a mobile OS is inevitable.

Case in point: Google starting making “laptops” in 2011, a year after the iPad was announced, that were running a Linux-based Chrome OS and were entirely cloud-based. And now, the newest Chromebooks support full mobile apps. The storage doesn’t matter. The desktop apps don’t matter. The build doesn’t even really matter. Access to the cloud, though, does matter.

If you were ask me now where the iPad will be in three more years, when it reaches its 10-year anniversary, I still couldn’t tell you. I’ve never been a big iPad user, and I would be surprised if that changed for me in the near future.

But I can almost guarantee there’s some question about it that hasn’t been asked yet, maybe even by Apple itself. And it’s a much bigger question than “Is it a bigger iPhone?”

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