As the iPad turns four, the tablet faces an existential crisis

By James Robinson , written on May 9, 2014

From The News Desk

Last month, the iPad turned four-years old. Throughout the device's short lifespan, Apple has remained the king of the tablet market. As evidence, consider that 77 percent of all web traffic on tablets comes from iPads. This is a dominant position for Apple to find itself in, given that Google only has 67 percent of the desktop search market.

However, like all birthdays can, this latest one for the iPad has prompted an existential crisis. What is a tablet good for? Why do we want it?

New research from Flurry today tracks the usage patters of 100,000 iPad users, shedding some light on the above quandaries. The report, fore example, found that gaming and entertainment use peaks for iPad users of all ages at between 5pm and 8pm, before trailing off sharply after that.

Yes, the iPad is an evening time entertainment tool, but it isn’t used simply like a TV. Two-thirds of all the TV we watch is between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Only a third of our iPad use falls in between those hours. And Flurry found that we were all using our iPads for entertainment throughout the day too, meaning the drop off wasn’t as sharp as expected in daylight hours.

Outside of use as a media player, things became more confused, Flurry finds. Teens and college students are using their iPads as PC replacements, with four peaks throughout the day for productivity and utility apps: early in the morning, mid-afternoon, around 9 p.m. and in the wee hours of the morning. This likely translates to, in bed, in front of the TV, home from class. Working adults, on the other hand, don’t use these apps throughout the day at all. It remains to be seen whether new software suites like Microsoft Office for iPad can drag people off their computers to do real  work on tablets, but for now, the evidence indicates this is not the case.

Our iPads are just around. They’re with us, and kind of nifty, but seem to hover awkwardly in the space between smartphone and desktop computer. I finally invested in one myself at the end of 2013 with the release of the iPad Air and it took me months to relax into the fact that I probably didn’t actually need it. I find it good mostly for sending emails and reading news in bed, sneaking an episode of TV in while I eat and watching movies on planes. I like it, but I probably wouldn't miss it, were it gone, and I'm not sure I'll buy another.

It has been forecast loudly and often that the iPad (and tablets in general) will vanquish desktop computing. But this prediction has been too premature and may prove to be off base entirely. People aren’t reupping on the iPad as frequently they are smartphones. As Benedict Evans outlined at the end of April, iPad sales are sluggish and have started to taper away ever so slightly. After the usual spike in sales with the release of the iPad Air, Apple saw a bigger than usual drop off in sales. Comparatively, revenue and sales from the iPhone are still trending upwards.

The market for computers has fallen away with the demand for tablets. Smartphones remain the true and undeniable market market force, with global sales exploding and no roof in sight. An iPad is a good toy, but unless it can establish a much broader case for itself beyond reading the news or delivering entertainment on the go, its best days might be behind it (and at such a young age too).

Our smartphones are getting bigger, better, and faster. More importantly they’re with us always. An iPad you have to walk over to pick up, which in these lazy modern times is more of an obstacle than you’d think.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]