Back in 2010, the iPad represented a sort of mystical missing piece meant to bridge two very different words. On one side, the ultra-mobile iPhone offered great potential despite its limits, and on the other, the powerful Mac had a mature capable platform but was nowhere near as portable. The iPad was meant to fit between them, offering a desktop-style experience in a mobile package.
To say the iPad was a hit is an understatement. It instantly became the fastest product to reach every major milestone all the way up to 250 million sales--no small feat when you consider it followed things like the iPod, iPhone and iMac. Even now, the iPad is still the quickest seller in Apple's history.
But there's been a downward trend of late. The iPhone is hotter than ever, but iPad sales have significantly sputtered, falling nearly 25 percent when compared to last year. But that doesn't mean the iPad can't have a revival.
Force of nature
Right out of the gate, the iPad had to overcome a fair amount of criticism, and the biggest objection was its similarity to the iPhone. It wasn't just the single-button design--the iPad ran an operating system nearly identical to the iPhone's and didn't introduce a single new feature, unless you count the ability to rotate the home screen to work in landscape mode.
And five years later, not much has changed. The problem isn't so much that the iPad feels like a large iPhone. It's that there aren't enough compelling features--or any, to be perfectly honest--to separate it from its smaller sibling. From the Retina display to Touch ID, every great feature has gotten its start on the iPhone, and it often takes a generation or two to appear on the tablet. And once it does, there's nothing bigger or better about it.
Each generation of iPhone introduces a features that makes us want it, but not many iPad models have been must-haves. iPad Air came close, but even with its slimmed-down case and toned bezels, it lacked a real killer feature (like Touch ID from the iPhone 5s, for example) to push it over the top. If Apple wants the iPad to be a biennial product like the iPhone, we need more reasons to upgrade beyond better comfort and weight.
This year, that could be Force Touch--the combination of multi-touch and the iPad's large screen could bring the technology to another level. Even if Apple were to bring it to the iPhone 6s first, Force Touch on the iPad could offer a greater experience, with taptic feedback while typic and floating contextual menus that bring options and palettes to our fingertips.
If the iPad Air 3 lacks any killer new hardware features, what about special software capabilities? It seems pretty clear that Apple isn't going to release a hybrid operating system anytime soon, but iOS doesn't have to be as limiting as Apple makes it. Year after year, Apple has stopped short of adding iPad-only features, and as iOS matures, very little about it feels as though it was built with a tablet-sized screen in mind.
The most obvious change is multitasking. As it stands, multitasking on iOS amounts to little more than switching between apps via the carousel. It's a fine solution (made even quicker on the iPad with the five-finger "claw" gesture), but it pales in comparison to multitasking on OS X. It's one of the starkest differences between the way we work on our Macs and our tablets; something as simple as copying text or comparing images requires several steps on the iPad, and the constant back-and-forth motion stymies any real attempt at multitasking.
It's not just an overdue feature, it's probably the most sought-after one since copy and paste, and if done right, it could give the iPad a much-needed boost in the productivity department. Side-by-side apps is the obvious choice, but Apple could also tap into the sharing and action extensions in iOS to develop an entirely new way of multitasking, with in-app browsers and notepads that pop up when Force Touch is implemented.
Despite its abilities, there's still an overall perception that the iPad is a secondary device, used for small tasks and consuming content, rather than doing actual work. To that end, Apple recently launched an ad campaign to spotlight the myriad ways to get things done on the iPad. But to position it as a powerful device that "changes everything," Apple should build a closer relationship between the iPad and the Mac.
We've seen glimpses of how nicely the two can play together with things like Handoff and Continuity, but with a screen closer in size to the one on the new MacBook than the iPhone 6 Plus, the iPad is in a unique position. Even if Apple never adapts OS X for multitouch, it could still merge the two OSes and transform the iPad into a versatile device that adapts to however you happen to be working.
The key lies in embracing VNC. For years, Apple Remote Desktop has allowed IT professionals to keep tabs on dozens of Macs at once, but Apple has been reluctant to bring its monitoring app to iOS. Apps like Screens and Splashtop already offer easy ways to access your Mac's screen, but a solution baked into iOS would seriously up the ante for the iPad, both as a production and a multitasking tool. Being able to quickly access files on your Mac would be one thing, but Apple could let you access your iPhone's screen too, solving many of the frustrations we have with the one-app-at-a-time model.
For nearly a year now, rumors have pointed to a new kind of iPad--think of it as the opposite of the iPad mini. The so-called iPad Pro caters to users who want an even larger screen. A 12-inch iPad might seem like the nichiest of niche products, but when you break it down, it might not be so crazy.
Back in 2012 when I bought the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, I assumed it would be the last Mac I every purchased. Based on cost, future OS X support, and my heavier reliance on the iPad, I estimated a 7- to 8-year lifespan for the machine, an eternity in the tech world. It seemed logical that by 2020 there would be a new class of device to close the gap between our tablets and notebooks. If the iPad Pro is real, it could bring us closer to that seeming inevitability, requiring developers to rethink the capabilities and interfaces of their apps once again.
A giant screen would suggest a different iOS experience--perhaps one that finally ditches the icon grid or adds a Dashboard-style widget environment. But to really attract users on either side of the fence, Apple could make the iPad Pro the first iOS device to use USB-C. Using a USB-C charging port instead of Lightning would open the iPad Pro up to a world of expansive, productive and file-sharing capabilities. That alone could be reason enough for people to ditch their fully working iPads to upgrade to a new one.
And it would give its new slogan--"Everything changes with iPad"--a whole lot more meaning.