How Will iPad Sales Rebound?

With all the talk surrounding Apple’s new iPad Pro and its predicted assault into the corporate workplace, replacing legacy PCs, you would be forgiven for thinking that all is well in iPad/tablet land, and that sales are growing healthily.

Except that it’s not. iPad sales have been flat/declining since 2013 and up till the last earning report from Apple, there has been no sign that it has even hit the bottom.

Therefore, any analysis of what iPads future prospects are has to balance and ideally encompass two opposing trends. You need a holistic discussion.

The following are a few things that we might consider;

  1. The majority of iPad use to date has not been at work. Usage data by hour-of-the-day clearly indicates that iPads are used during leisure hours, and that work hour usage is much less.
  2. Smartphone hardware and software have improved to the point that a very large proportion of tasks can be performed on phones. It is questionable if there remains any common home computing task which definitely needs larger devices.
  3. As far as I know, corporate deployment of iPads has mostly been limited to special tasks for which PCs are ill-suited. Tablets have not yet replaced PCs in corporates in any significant degree, and we haven’t even seen any clues that this is imminent. Common reasons are the lack of support for legacy systems and software (which includes MS-Office).
  4. It has been commonly accepted that long replacement cycles are a major factor in the lack of growth in iPad sales. Well do you know what? Even the latest iOS 9 supports the iPad 2, introduced in March 2011. The only news coming out from Apple that might spark upgrades is the iPad Pro, but given its much increased price, we can safely assume that most current iPad owners will not upgrade their devices to the Pro.
  5. The iPad Pro with the new Pencil and software from Adobe make a compelling case for a device that graphic professionals would love. But we also know that this is a small market. Adobe Creative Cloud, for example, is aiming for a total of 6 million subscribers by the end of 2015. In comparison, it’s likely that the iPad installed base is several hundreds of millions.

Considering the above points, the following is what I’m thinking;

  1. Discussions about whether or not tablets will replace household PCs is totally irrelevant. The household PC market is probably shrinking rapidly, especially in usage hours, as people find that they can browse the web, download music, manage photos, reply to emails very comfortably from their smartphones. Discussing who will prevail in this market isn’t very forward thinking, and as time passes, the relevance of household PC replacements will diminish to the level of insignificance. It is questionable whether replacing household PCs will significantly contribute to increased iPad sales, even if it happened at a large scale.
  2. Selling to creative professionals will not significantly affect iPad sales. The iPad Pro is a great device, but the Pencil will not lift iPad sales.
  3. The iPad Pro is unlikely to mass accelerate the iPad replacement cycle.

It is blindingly apparent that what we have seen with the iPad Pro alone will not revive iPad sales. The answer will have to come from elsewhere. It will have to come from non-consumption of computing; i.e. the conversion of non-computing tasks into computing tasks.

Exhibit. 1: Diminishing role of PCs in household use.

StatCounter comparison US daily 20120816 20151001

This graph (from StatCounter) shows daily web usage by device type. The spikes in the data indicate weekend usage. In the blue line (desktop PCs), weekends show reduced usage. In the green (mobile/smartphone) and purple lines, weekends show increased usage. This shows how desktop PC usage skews to workdays and smartphone/tablet usage skews to weekends. Interestingly, as smartphone usage increases, desktop PC spikes get deeper. This suggests that mobile usage is taking away home PC usage, but not so much of work PC usage.