Tablet sales are down, but devices like the Apple iPad Pro and the Microsoft Surface could help revive the category with business users.
It’s no secret that mobile tablet sales have been floundering—according to IDC, worldwide shipments were down 5.9% year-over-year in Q1 of 2015, and though Apple still leads the market with its various iPad models, it’s seen a decline in shipments for five consecutive quarters.
Which is why it’s especially interesting that one of the biggest announcements from Apple’s event on Wednesday was an addition to its tablet lineup.
The iPad Pro is Apple’s largest and most impressively specced tablet to date, with a 12.9-inch retina display and a processor which Apple claims is “faster than 80 percent of the portable PCs that shipped in the last 12 months.” But this device isn’t a sleeker, more powerful update to previous Apple tablets (there’s a new iPad Mini 4 on the way, and the iPad 2 is still in the lineup). With business-minded software features and an optional keyboard and stylus, the iPad Pro marks a move into new territory for the company. And when Apple AAPL takes a step in a different direction, the tech world takes notice.
Understandably, the iPad Pro is drawing comparisons to the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft’s latest two-in-one product. Both devices are designed for enterprise use, with the ability to run Microsoft Office programs, and both work with productivity-focused accessories like a detachable keyboard and a stylus. But while the Surface runs full desktop Windows 10 in a portable package, the iPad Pro offers more of a hybrid of desktop and mobile features. These include multitasking and some enterprise-level programs, but the same iOS software you’ll find on an iPhone, with LTE connectivity as well.
While we can debate whether the Surface Pro and the iPad Pro are truly competing devices, one thing seems clear: The tablet as we know it is evolving, and its target audience is adjusting in the process.
“People are realizing that a big portion of their content consumption activities can now be done on phablets,” says Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst at IDC. “That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing a shift towards larger and mobile-connected tablets and detachables.”
With smartphone screens getting bigger, it becomes harder to justify buying an additional content consumption device like a tablet. Add in the ability to get real work done, though, and the use case becomes clear. That’s why IBM’s developing made-for-business apps for the iPad and other apps, and why Microsoft’s teamed up with Dell and Hewlett-Packard to sell the Surface Pro to companies.
“[To succeed] the Pro does need to be more than a consumption device,” says Brian Blau, research director at Gartner. “It has to enable core productivity, communications, portability and also have the necessary apps and services meant for enterprise use for the device to gain broader acceptance.”
If the corporate world doesn’t latch on to the iPad Pro, that doesn’t necessarily mean the concept is a flop. It’s a first-gen product, and Apple will likely make tweaks in response to feedback from enterprise users—many of whom might prefer the full Mac operating system to iOS, for example. Like Microsoft with its Surface, Apple will face growing pains, but it’s clear that the business demand is there.
Now that Apple has a hat in the ring with the iPad Pro, it could hasten the evolution away from a category of devices that sit awkwardly between phones and laptops toward a class of products that blend the best of full-fledged computers with the intuitiveness of a handheld design.
Just don’t be surprised if it’s more at home in the board room than the living room.
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