Comment Private Eye has a running joke satirising a great British tabloid institution: the Reverse Ferret. "An apology to our readers…" it usually begins, explaining a sudden about-face in the newspaper's position.
This year's Reverse Ferret in technology journalism is: the iPad is Great for Work. Remember how we (and not just us) told you the iPad was now a completely new platform, an exciting new computer niche? Well, we apologise to our readers…
The promise isn’t being fulfilled and the backlash is now in full swing.
This autumn, rather than taking a huge leap forward into professional business computing, as many had hoped, the iPad retreated into its boutique, graphics niche. It's more expensive than ever, and more focused on those creatives. And as if to remind us that such fragile things of beauty are not for the white or blue-collar masses, it's more fragile than ever too.
Behold iOS 11, an entirely new computer platform from AppleREAD MORE
Before being ousted in 1985, Steve Jobs had left behind an enterprise strategy that involved networking Macs over a LAN, and supporting Apple's Laserwriter as a networked printer. The plan was that the Mac would storm the IBM citadel by offering ease of use. Gassée, placed in charge of Mac development soon after Jobs' departure, quickly realised this was a losing proposition. It was a battle to get a personal computer into a business where the IT department was already happy with its mainframes and minis, they weren't interested in "bicycles for the mind". So Apple instead promoted the Mac into the publishing and education niches.
That's more or less where Apple pushes the iPad hardest today. If it disappoints fanbois, it's because 30 years ago it made sense. Apple was dwarfed by IBM, and had to go fishing where the fish were. It had to play to its unique strengths. When in the mid-to-late 1990s Apple disappointed Michael Dell by stubbornly refusing to die, you can thank Gassée and other execs for sticking to the creatives niche.
Today, though, things are different. Apple is the largest public company in the world, dwarfed only by sovereign wealth funds. It has cash to burn – or worse, it actually has cash to give to the US government. (Apple was heading for around $300bn in cash and reserves before it started to pay back some of that tax earned on revenue overseas.)
The more optimistic and thoughtful fans advise patience.
I see iPad OS as a ~3-year effort to build a full-blown, general-purpose laptop replacement from a branch of a mature phone OS, not 8 years of high-priority work on the iPad’s OS itself.— Marco Arment (@marcoarment) November 20, 2018
"Just wait, poppets," they say. "The iPad will get there".
Others look to semantics to rescue the iPad from its failure to progress, as Jason Snell does here.
That doesn't really fool anyone – and I'm not so sure either can be optimistic, for a very obvious reason I'll explain in a moment.
Budget Surface is thriving because Apple makes the iPad boutique
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The desire for a low-cost device has resulted in one of the surprise hits of the year, for Microsoft, with the budget Surface Go. Or at least we can infer that's one of the reasons – it may be a brand halo effect as a £1,000+ product suddenly morphed into a £400+ product. Either way, Microsoft can't make enough of 'em. Microsoft is the beneficiary of Apple taking the iPad's Pro-ness into an expensive niche. Or put another way, it reserves the stuff that give it widespread enterprise appeal for the very expensive model.
And this is despite some rather obvious flaws with the Surface Go proposition. Where the iPad falls short is in its failure to allow you to open two windows from the same application at once. My distinguished friend Volker Weber has got round this by using two applications at once.
My workaround: Word + iA Writer— Volker Weber (@vowe) November 16, 2018
But this isn't possible for what I need, which is comparing two Word documents and two Evernotes notes at the same time. That's work, and it isn't much to ask.
The Go is a very flawed tablet, as Microsoft has few native apps and content. It is very slow and the keyboard feels awful to use at first. But it will allow you to see two Evernotes at once.
Apple stresses the iPad's multitasking, but it needs more than that to be a useful professional productivity tool
The problem with the iPad's direction is everything it excels at is not needed for me, nor for any other productivity software-using worker. I really don't need such an extraordinary, lavish 2388x1668 ProMotion TrueTone display. I don't need the expensive array of sensors required for Face ID – give me a thumb scanner.
I do, however, need occasionally to attach external storage over USB, something the iPad can't do. I'm a little old now to change careers and become an architect, so that's completely out. And then there's cost: climbing to four figures for something with a keyboard, and £2,000 fully kitted out.
The problem facing people who really like Apple software, and want the iPad to fill that amazingly convenient and useful £500 niche, is that Apple is going in the other direction. It has set out to grow revenue by increasing margins to the pip-squeak pain threshold, rather than losing volume. In fact, Apple seems very relaxed about losing volumes. So long as it's making money.
I think this is a little risky and misguided. If Apple is serious about growing services revenue – now north of $10bn a quarter – it's going to need to retain at least some market share outside the USA. In the US, the iPhone has around half of the market, which insulates Apple to how niche it is becoming in other markets.
If Apple continues to raise margin at the expense of market share then it is conceivable its market will eventually comprise a small number of extremely rich people. Why launch a movie streaming service when that's your device base? You may as well follow that Kardashian down the street individually, saying: "We've made this great movie for you."
But perhaps some of Apple's celebrity-obsessed execs would think that's just fine.
Tim Cook to Eddy Cue: "Let's green-light that." ®