I've made no secret of the fact that the iPad was not designed for people like me. But that doesn't blind me to the fact that the iPad keeps winning over new people and that it is soundly trouncing the traditional PC in several key areas where people want to use computers.
The numbers don't lie. In the 25 months since launching the iPad, Apple has surged from fifth place in the global PC market to a dead heat for first place with Hewlett-Packard -- if you include tablet sales as part of overall PC sales (see chart below).
More than anything, this chart tells us that a lot of people are buying iPads at times when they would have purchased PCs. Whether those are second PC purchases for the den or the bedroom, or PCs for young kids or elderly parents who simply don't need a full computer, or iPads in place of laptops for traveling, we can't know for sure -- although we do know a little bit (more on that in moment). What we know for sure is that people are plunking down money for iPads and the traditional PC is taking a hit because of it.
The problem with the iPad
When I'm on a computer I spend most of my time doing active stuff like writing e-mails, writing articles, instant messaging with colleagues and friends, posting interesting links to Twitter and Google+, reviewing business documents, and editing photos. While you can roughly do all of those things on the iPad, every single one of them is more efficient to do on a regular computer. And with a laptop like the 11-inch MacBook Air or Asus Zenbook, I can do it with a form factor that is just as portable and convenient as the iPad.
When it comes to copying and pasting between programs, flipping back and forth between files, quickly searching and accessing information from an old e-mail message, or instant messaging with a bunch of different people at the same time, the iPad is just too cumbersome for me.
For reading and note taking, I love the iPad. It's even grown on me for watching videos and scanning social media. But the bottom line is that I just don't spend much time on it because it doesn't meet my needs for most of the stuff that I do.
Nevertheless, I've asked myself how I use the iPad. I've questioned family, friends, and colleagues about their iPad use. I've talked to strangers in airports, at events, and in cafes. I've gawked at people in public and rudely looked over their shoulders in order to see what they were doing.
I've come up with a list of ways that people are using the iPad, and when they prefer it to a PC. That's led me to six scenarios where I consistently see the iPad taking mojo away from the PC.
The winning scenarios
1. Business meetings
Many of the iPad's earliest adopters were business executives and managers. This crowd quickly discovered that the iPad was the perfect device for people who spend their day in meetings. It's great for viewing PDFs and other documents, pulling up a detailed calendar view, jotting down notes, loading full Web pages, and accessing charts and reports. For smaller meetings, it can even work as a show-and-tell device that can replace a PowerPoint and a projector. The instant-on capability of the iPad is critical here. It may stay powered off for the first 50 minutes of the meeting, but when you need it in the final 10 minutes for a couple critical tasks its instant-on capability is a lot better than booting or trying to wake a Windows PC from sleep mode.
2. Couch and nightstand
As the PC revolution took off and analysts in the technology industry started looking at the ways people use a computer versus the way they use a television, the analysts came up with the concept of the PC being a "lean-foward" device (for doing something active) and the TV being a "lean-back" device (for doing something more passive).
That distinction worked for a while, but then a lot of people eventually started doing the two things at the same time. They'd position their home PC in a spot where they could see the TV, or sit with their laptop on the couch in front of the TV, or maybe use their smartphone to send messages, surf the Web, and use social networks while watching TV. For these users, when the iPad came out, it just made sense. They were no longer confined to a desk, or chained to a power outlet with their laptop, or limited to a small screen on their smartphone while watching TV. In that sense, the iPad became the perfect home PC for a lot of users -- or at least the perfect second PC in many cases.
3. Conferences and events
The big question that a lot of attendees have faced in the past at trade shows and conferences was whether to carry around a laptop all day. Whenever I go to these events today, by far the most common machine that attendees are carrying around is the iPad.
Now, a lot of these are the same business executives and business managers mentioned in the first scenario, but it's also a lot of other professionals who simply use the iPad for viewing conference materials, note-taking, using the Web to verify or look up something during a presentation, and scanning social media to see what other attendees are saying about the event. The key to this scenario is battery life. The iPad's battery can easily last all day without a charge while most laptops cannot.
4. Airplane flights
Using a laptop on an airplane comes with a bunch of challenges and inconveniences. It's difficult to shield your screen from the people sitting nearby so you don't have privacy for sensitive data that you might be working with. The battery life on most laptops is somewhere between three and five hours, so there are lots of times when it can barely make it through a full flight. And if you're taking an international flight, then you're really in trouble.
Then there's the space issue. Oversized laptops will barely fit on the tray table. If the person next to you is also using a laptop then you'll be bumping elbows. And if you're tall, you'll have to hunch over your laptop and tuck your elbows into your sides. This is where the iPad's form factor becomes key. You can operate it with or without the tray table, you can easily turn away from that nosy person next to you who keeps looking at your screen, and you can use it in a variety of different positions as you shift around during a long flight.
5. Quick kiosks
Setting up self-operated kiosks can be a great way to interact with customers and automate certain things, but they used to be expensive and complicated to get up and running. With the iPad, you can use apps like Kiosk Pro to set up a kiosk faster than ever before and at minimal expense. This makes the iPad a great tool for small businesses. One recent example that I've seen is a restaurant that put iPad kiosks in its lobby to let customers sign up for its mailing list in return for a coupon and being entered in a drawing.
Since Apple won't let you disable the home button, there are special enclosures you can buy that cover the home button and lock in the iPad so that people can't tamper with it. The key to this scenario is the iPad's app ecosystem that has created a broad pool of high-quality, low-cost apps that extend the functionality of the iPad.
6. The kid machine
For the past couple generations, kids have taken to computers and technology with almost no trouble and with few exceptions. However, with the iPhone this phenomenon started to go a step further -- or younger. Suddenly, 2-year-olds could figure out how to swipe to unlock the phone, touch the photo app, and flick their little fingers across the screen to flip through photos. Once we got a big screen version of this experience with the iPad, the sky was suddenly the limit for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. They had a computer that required no training from their parents. Apps like Intro to Math, by Montessorium took advantage of the iPad interface to deliver software that was inexpensive, easy to learn, fun, and effective.
On the other end of the spectrum, the iPad is easy enough to figure out that plenty of elderly people who never felt comfortable with a computer have been able to use an iPad to do a few basic things. The key to this scenario is the iPad's multitouch interface, which requires no user manual and no instruction to get started.
What it means
When Apple released the iPad in March 2010, the most aggressive forecast I'd seen from any reputable source was that it would sell 5 million for the year. When the iPad sold 15 million units by the end of 2010, it shocked the technology industry. Then, in 2011, Apple sold over 40 million iPads. In 2012, Apple is likely to sell over 60 million iPads.
Keep in mind that the PC market as whole (not counting the iPad), sold over 360 million machines in 2011 and will approach 400 million in 2012, according to Gartner. So, it's not like the iPad is running the PC out of business anytime soon. But it's important to note that we're at the beginning of a sea change.
While there are still plenty of people like me who have little use for the iPad, it's increasingly clear that we are a distinct minority. The iPad's ease-of-use, form factor, app ecosystem, and battery life make it a highly usable computer for lots of different kinds of users and lots of different scenarios in which people value its lack of complexity.
What's going to be interesting to watch over the next couple years is whether the hybrid approach that is being promoted by Intel with its ultrabook/tablet combos, Microsoft with Windows 8, and Android tablet makers like Asus with its Transformer line will be able to gain transaction against the iPad with devices that try to combine the best of both worlds from a tablet and a PC.
I have my doubts. In bringing full PC functionality to the tablet, all of these solutions will have to sacrifice the most important features that are distinguishing the iPad: ease-of-use, long battery life, and instant-on. Plus, none of them has the wide selection of tablet-optimized apps that people can get on the iPad. I think it's more likely that the tablet remains a tablet and continues to gain ground as a mass market alternative to the traditional computer in many scenarios.