Misguided Expectations for Replacements Cycles

Many people have blamed the slowdown of iPad sales on the fact that the replacement cycle of iPads is quite slow. In fact, we don’t really know what the replacement cycle is yet because the device is still very new (even the first replacement cycle hasn’t yet kicked in) and the second generation device, the iPad 2 (introduced March, 2011) is still used quite a lot.

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My question is, is the replacement cycle too long and should we be blaming Apple (as quite a few analysts are) for the lack of reasons to upgrade? Should we blame Apple for not introducing compelling improvements to the iPad that would drive users to buy new devices? Should we blame Apple for mismanaging the App Store to the effect that not enough exciting titles are being released for iPad?

This hinges on what the natural replacement cycle for a tablet device should look like. If the natural cycle should be something like two years, then yes we can blame Apple. If it is however something like 4 years, then we cannot conclude that Apple is doing a bad job.

Therefore, I think we should give some thought on to what the natural replacement cycle for a tablet device should actually look like.

Smartphones

The replacement cycle for the phone market varies from less than 2 years to over 10 years (interestingly, Android phones seem to have a much faster cycle).

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Recon Analytics sums up the reason for differences in replacement cycles as follows;

Based on the data and analysis outlined in the report, it is conclusive that over the last four years, handset subsidization is the dominant factor influencing the handset replacement cycle. The percentage of subscribers on postpaid and prepaid plans, as well as the relative income level in the countries, had a negligible impact on the handset replacement cycle.

Considering that the majority of iPads are WiFi-only and that these are not subsidized, we can expect iPad replacement cycles to be significantly longer that phones. There is very little reason to expect iPad replacements every two years.

PCs

The replacement cycle for business PCs in the US was a bit longer than 3 years. Why do they replace them so often?

  1. Increased productivity: If the old PC is much slower than the most recent models, then a new one would increase productivity.
  2. Escalating support costs: If the old PC tends to break down a lot, then buying a new computer may become cheaper than the maintenance costs.
  3. Software requirements: If the old PC cannot run new software, then it’s time to upgrade to a new PC.

Now how much of this would apply to tablets?

The amazing thing about the iPad, even the original model, is how fast it was on the limited hardware. Apple went to great lengths to achieve this, even sacrificing features that have been found on PCs since 2000 like multitasking in the background. Apple has kept third party software under strict restrictions, and this has helped keep software from bogging down the system. Apple itself has worked hard not to make iOS bloated.

As a result, the iPad 2 from 2011 still has enough performance to run the most recent iOS (iOS 8) with OK speed. Hence “increased productivity” does not apply very much to iPads and neither do “software requirements”. We also have to understand that iPads are mostly used by consumers, and so less emphasis is places on “increased productivity”.

Another amazing thing about the iPad is how durable it is. Without almost any moving parts, not even a keyboard, there is very little that can break. The build quality of the device was also superb from the onset. Also, unlike phones which you carry about you all day, you are much less likely to drop and shatter an iPad on concrete. Simply put, the cost of maintenance for an iPad is remarkable low.

Since none of the reasons for a 3 year PC replacement cycle apply to iPads, there is no justification for expecting similar cycles for iPads. It is very possible that the replacement cycle for an iPad is much longer than 3 years.

The one thing to note is that the iOS 8 is bearable on iPad 2, but stutters quite a bit. This is probably due to the fact that it only has 512 Mbytes of RAM and I think that it is unlikely that the next iOS version will support it. If so, then “software requirements” will demand a replacement next year.

Other consumer electronics devices

For most consumer electronics devices, we generally only replace them if they break down or our family gets larger (and we need a larger refrigerator or washing machine). Unless you buy them from a manufacturer that is seriously skimping on important components, they should last at least 5 years.

Summary

As we can see, the 2 year replacement cycle that many analysts were initially expecting for tablets was completely misguided, and hence we cannot blame Apple for a cycle that may be 3 years or longer.

We could even argue that having compelling new features is only rarely a reason why people ever upgrade their devices. This is for the most part irrelevant to the upgrade cycle. In fact, the main pain points cited for upgrading PCs are mitigated by stricter control of third-partly applications, better hardware build quality and simpler hardware design on iPads.