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The Tim Cook Apple iPad prediction that's looking increasingly blurry

Key Points
  • Tablet sales have softened in recent years, but Apple's iPad is still leading the pack.
  • With more than 36% of the tablet market, Apple is way ahead of its closest competitors; only fifth-place Lenovo also grew shipments in Q4 2019.
  • The latest iPad Pro, launched this month, blurs the line more with laptops.
  • In the education market, which in some places has gone 100% virtual due to the coronavirus, the iPad has lost ground to Google and Microsoft. 
Apple's new iPad Pro 2020.

It would probably be wrong to argue semantics with Apple CEO Tim Cook, who said on a 2012 earnings conference call that combining a laptop and tablet was akin to converging a toaster and refrigerator — you'd wind up compromising both. But today, as the market for portable computers that possess features of both tablets and laptops takes off, Apple's iPad is leading a pack that looks more like a winning compromise in a weakened tablet market.

Apple celebrated the iPad's tenth birthday this year by virtually launching a new iPad Pro in March — like everyone else, Apple canceled its big media gatherings and has since also closed its retail stores due to the worsening coronavirus pandemic. The new iPad marks another step in the device's march toward looking, feeling and behaving like a laptop. Over the past few years, this slow morph has helped the iPad gain significant share in a market where, overall, sales have been declining since their height in 2014. In its review this week, CNBC said the new iPad Pro "makes a tempting laptop replacement."

According to Rick Kowalski, senior manager of industry analysis and business intelligence for the Consumer Technology Association, 2020 will bring a 5% drop in unit shipments of tablets in 2020, down from 39.5 million in 2019. In the fourth quarter of 2019, the launch of Apple's seventh-generation entry-level iPad helped the firm grow its hold to 36.5% of the sector, up from 29.6% the previous year, according to research firm IDC. Lenovo, with 5.8% market share, was the only other brand that saw growth.

"Apple is bucking the trend with its iPad Pro. Outside of that, you don't see much excitement about tablets," says Lauren Guenveur, a senior research analyst on IDC's devices and displays team. "With the iPad mini the only iPad that isn't a detachable, the company is definitely skewing toward a pure detachable portfolio."

Microsoft Surface and detachable devices

Detachables, also known as 2-in-1 devices, typically feature keyboards that unhook from their screens (some have a 360-degree hinge that allows the keyboard to be folded flat against the display). Because there is less space for components — essential hardware must fit somewhere in the display — historically the devices have had to compromise on design and computing power.

Because of this, you don't see many 2-in-1 devices in the wild, and analysts say that with the exception of the Microsoft Surface, no one really has come up with a compelling model. Apple, with its stronghold over its own hardware, software and chips, might have an opportunity to do what it did with tablets the first time around and remake the 2-in-1 market, pulling share from mobile PCs that command the enterprise market.

"Apple has high hopes for the enterprise market. I suspect there will be an overlap with detachables and laptops," Guenveur said. "Apple has the most loyal customers in the world — we're talking like 95% loyalty — and it's good at getting a person to buy one product and move them up the SKU level; you start with an iPhone, they get an iPad, then a MacBook." 

Laptops are the world's choice for work, and machines running Windows dominate. But as Apple responds by beefing up the iPad's processing power and evolves its design to make it more comfortable for the daily grind — typing, navigating screens by mouse and trackpad — it's likely that the tablet-turned-detachable will continue to have a starring role in Apple's lineup. It's still anyone's guess, though, how blurry the line becomes between iPads and MacBooks. 

Apple declined to comment.

iPad Pro goes more pro

One thing is clear: Apple is catering to laptop PC users with its latest iPad offerings. In September 2019 the company announced iPadOS, its tablet-specific operating system that makes it more efficient to multitask, browse and use web-based apps like Google Docs. It also supports the use of a trackpad or mouse, both for its own keyboards and a host of ones made by third parties, which will make the iPad more appealing.

Jess Lee, COO of software developer community DEV, recently switched from a laptop to the iPad for better mobility when she travels. Much of what she uses the iPad for falls under productivity — web-conferencing colleagues or using it as a second monitor when she is using her laptop — but "as a full-time machine, it's not fully comfortable," she says. "It's the nature of the iPad being smaller than a laptop."

Bradley Chambers, a writer at tech news site 9to5Mac and IT director at Brainerd Baptist School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who oversees a stock of iPads used by administrators and students, says Apple has more work to do. "I want to see Apple move the iPad imparity with the Mac," he says. "It's one thing to spend 30 minutes on an iPad in a classroom, but if you think about knowledge workers outside of education, the ergonomics of the iPad aren't great — not for eight hours. I want to see Apple evolve the use of the cursor with an iPad."

The latest iPad Pro aims to tackle this problem with its new OS. Its new Magic Keyboard, which is backlit and fit with a trackpad and cursor support, attaches magnetically to the device — sort of suspending it in the air — and is adjustable up to 130 degrees. Apple also stated in a release that the iPad Pro's new A12Z Bionic chip makes it "faster and more powerful than most Windows PC laptops."

While that remains to be seen for most workers tied to less costly legacy laptops and desktops, there are some sectors where tablets sales — and presumably the detachables slowly phasing them out — continue to grow.

"iPads present imagery better, which is really important in our industry," says Kristin Savilia, CEO of Joor, whose software digitizes the wholesale process for fashion, home and beauty brands and about 200,000 retailers. "Think about shopping from a consumer perspective. If you can see the details more beautifully, you're more apt to buy that product. It's the same in B2B, with 200,000 stores using this technology to decide whether or not a product makes sense in their store. To see it beautifully on the iPad matters and makes a difference."

Joor has thousands of clients using its software on iPads in the field, but many of them return to the office to use its laptop version to crunch numbers and place orders. "It's taking what each product is best at and making use for that," Savilia said.

What store closures mean to Apple's bottom line

Until the productivity gains promised by the iPad Pro become widespread, the detachables market remains niche. Compounding this is the issue of bundling and price. While the largest iPad Pro with a 12.9-inch display starts at $999, adding in the Wi-Fi plus cellular version — which you'll want with new 5G networks, according to analysts — makes it $1,149. You also pay $349 if you want Apple's new keyboard (although tablets accessories company Brydge sells a comparable one for $230) and $129 for the Apple Pencil.

"The iPad Pro looks more toward productivity rather than just pure consumption," says David McQueen, research director at ABI Research. Given the accessories ecosystem you have to invest in to make the iPad Pro the best workhorse, "it can be quite pricey," he says.

Apple might find a wider market for the iPad if it bundled accessories like Apple Pencil and the new keyboard with touchpad, but the accessories deliver high profit margins.

Apple's iPad vs. Google Chromebook in schools

Apple does offer discounted pricing for students, teachers and school administrators, and there's room for a detachable iPad in the U.S. education market, where Google Chromebooks have dominated since 2014 due to their low cost and ease of deployment.

"If your main goal is to be a Google Docs client, then Chromebooks is a perfect suite for school," says Chambers of tech news site 9to5Mac, whose school just finished a four-year stint using the iPad Air. He's rolling out the new seventh-generation iPad in the fall. "But for anything past that, the iPad is a better device with its wide variety of apps and better support."

According to market research firm Futuresource Consulting, Chromebooks accounted for 59.9% of mobile devices shipped to K–12 classrooms in 2019, up from 58.1% in 2017. Windows devices grew from 21.7% to 22.5% over the same period. While consumer familiarity with Apple's ecosystem and its strong proposition on data privacy issues bodes well for the iPad maker here, iPad share fell from 14.8% to 13.8%. Mac laptops currently hold 3.4% of the sector.

"In terms of the evolution of computing battles in the future, we expect Microsoft and Google to push hard on 2-in-1 devices, designed specifically for education at increasingly aggressive sub-$300 price points," says Michael Boreham, a senior consultant at Futuresource. "Many in the industry believe the 2-in-1 format to be ideal for education, with tactile touch suited for some applications, while a keyboard is typically required for more traditional tasks. How Apple will respond to this trend will be interesting to watch."

Waiting for Apple to respond to, and eventually dominate, mobile technology sectors has become a national pastime. While shipments for tablets overall continue to decline, analysts are still bullish on the iPad for at least the next few years, given Apple's focus on its application for work and as a superior device on which to push out new content and services. Its tipping point, they say, will come when it more directly collides with the MacBook.

"The iPad still has a place in Apple's portfolio even with the MacBook, although it will never reach the sort of heights of the smartphone," McQueen said. He notes the prospect of a smartphone-tablet device with a foldable screen, which could come soon. "Even if people don't upgrade as much as they used to, Apple's ecosystem is still huge," he said.