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'Clearance sale' shows Apple's iPad is over. It's done

Cheaper or more sophisticated? Cupertino does neither

By Andrew Orlowski, 23 Mar 2017

Comment "The iPad is done," writes Europe's shrewdest hardware scribe Volker Weber in the aftermath of Apple's annual revamp of its tablet line.

The revamped iPads contain no new features, just price cuts, making it a "clearance sale".

"Apple is just refining the components, but there isn't much they can do these days to make yet another super duper earth-shattering innovation here. They are making it better, they are bringing the price down, and that puts tremendous pressure on all other tablet makers," Volker adds.

The trend has been apparent for some time, with iPad sales peaking in 2013. The iPad business is now roughly half of what it was.

So what happened?

Fundamentally, Apple created a new commodity computer category – but without actually having a commodity-priced computer product to sell you. Apple created a market – so obvious in retrospect – for a "third screen", and world+dog rushed out to get one.

But Apple mistakenly thought it could add bags of value to it every year to keep us upgrading regularly. All people wanted was a dumb display to save cranking out the laptop. And despite vendors' best efforts to make them slower every year with OS updates, tablets just don't need updating very often at all.

So while iPad sales have fallen, tablet penetration in the home has risen. Ofcom's Communications Market survey last year showed 5 per cent more households owned a tablet than in 2015, at 59 per cent. Laptop penetration is 64 per cent. We can surmise that everyone who wants computing at home already has one.

Another factor is unique to Apple, which is the phenomenal rise of the Chromebook in education, specifically US education. Apple has regarded the education market as its backyard for over 30 years (because, "ease of use"). But last year Chromebook sales claimed 51 per cent of the K-12 market – up from 1 per cent in 2013.

It's been a shock for Apple.

iDentity crisis

"The iPad is a high-end consumer product that isn't a good fit for education at all," Jesse Lozano, the co-founder of Pi-Top, told me this week. Pi-top makes education-focused Raspberry Pi computers – computing at a fraction of the price of an iPad – and recently received OCR certification. The Hackney-based startup recently hired one of Apple's senior sales education executives, who had been in charge of more than 5,000 US schools.

Apple's attempt to introduce a computer-upgrade psychology back to the iPad came in the shape of the 12.9-inch display iPad Pro, a gargantuan fondleslab aimed at creative types, now priced from £729 (32GB, no SIM) to £1,029 (256GB, LTE SIM). This received no new features or accessories in the "Clearance Sale" revamp. My journey to work is a good litmus test of what well-paid creative professionals spend their money on, and I've seen exactly one 12.9-inch iPad Pro, perched precariously on the lap of a commuter on a Northern Line train, who was trying not to look worried that a grand's worth of Apple iBling could smash on the floor.

And if Apple thinks price cuts can help, it may be whistling. Amazon is flogging its new 8-inch display Fire HD for £89.99 and last year's 10-inch model for as little as £134.98. Both come with 30 days of Prime. Tesco will flog you a superior Asus for under £200. And that's still a lot for a glorified picture frame.

If Apple wants to revive the tablet division, it could start taking those upscale creative types seriously: rethink the user interface, taking it beyond the simplistic design it's always had, and improve the wretched Apple keyboard. That alone put this punter off. As it is, Apple is stranded between two polarities: the iPad is too expensive to be a ubiquitous picture frame, and not sophisticated enough to be a productivity computer. ®

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