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Apple Watch: iPads R Us

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Photo / Apple.com
Photo / Apple.com

I've written about iPads used at Unitec recently, and I have more iPad stories to tell. Inevitably, the Unitec story gave rise to pronouncements, in the comments, to proclamations that being platform-dependent on Apple was bad for various reasons. Firstly, I've met a lot of educators in my time, and I have a lot of faith in them. I think my article showed that Unitec's James Oldfield, with the backing of the institution, put a lot of work into developing a comprehensive program, and it's clear it's operating very successfully, no matter what your personal position is on the issue of platforms. Meanwhile the rest of Unitec is developing multi-platform bring your own device.

In the wider world, there has been lots of speculation about how Apple's tablet platform is going. In the last financial quarter, Apple's revenue topped some analysts' estimates by a whopping $2 billion. Very strong iPhone sales accounted for the bulk of Apple's quarterly profit - but iPad sales were much weaker than anticipated.

Apple's sales of 16.35 million iPads during that quarter represented around a 16% decline in sales from the same year-ago quarter (which was over 19 million).

Apple has sold over 210 million iPads since it virtually invented the tablet phenomenon - that's in four years.

Besides, if you look at the iPad sales data over six months instead of three, iPad sales actually went up - just a little, but still up.

Apple CEO Tim Cook addressed the issue of the 'low' quarter directly during the earnings conference call, saying that the difference between the two year-quarters was a difference in channel inventory and a backlog of iPad minis at the end of 2012, which led to a spike in iPad sales during the company's first quarter of 2013. In other words, an unseasonably strong Q1 2013 gets compared to a slightly disappointing Q1 2014.

So if you think this means iPad was just a fad after all, there were still more than 16 million units sold. iPads clearly aren't a fad - nor is the rest of the tablet market, even though it has, please note, cooled off a little across the board. Tablet shipments slowed down to 21 per cent, to 50.8 million units. They continue to out-ship notebooks: tablets captured 41 per cent of the market compared to notebooks at 38 per cent. The decline in notebook sales slowed to 7 per cent with growth in Western Europe, but flat sales in North America.

But where exactly it's all headed, tablet versus PC versus smartphone, is not really clear either. As PC replacements, tablets still aren't that convincing. Meanwhile, PCs and phones are both morphing into things that are more like tablets, as Time magazine points out, writing that the era of tablet 'hypergrowth' is over, at least for now. At one end, in the Apple world as an example, MacBooks are getting more like iPads (the new iPad Air is very slim and has dropped in price to almost iPad territory) and some phones, like the big Galaxy Note 3, have grown enough physically to blur the distinction between phones and tablets (and rumours persist that Apple's next iPhone will also be bigger). Some people think of these big smartphones as 'phablets'; to me, 'cow pats' springs to mind.

In a way, the tablet thing might 'save' the PC market. That looked like it was on the verge of collapse a year ago, but the decline has since slowed. Meanwhile, 64-bit tablets (ie, iPads) and other power advances blur the line between what a PC was a few years ago and what a tablet is now: the latest iPad Air and mini (again, to use Apple as the example) are almost as powerful as one of the stock 2007 iMacs, for example.

What will iPad become? There will be new things the iPad will enable that simply would not have been possible on Macs, just like desktop publishing was possible on the Macintosh, but not on the Apple II back in the mid 1980s. Ben Thompson at Stratechery thinks there are already hints of these in specific niches like art, music, and gaming. "Apple's ads point to some of these as well, featuring everything from photography to windmill maintenance to sumo wrestling."

The fact iPad is already significantly outselling the Mac puts it far ahead of the first Mac relative to the Apple II - but as in that instance, it was the profit of the Apple II that launched the Mac; Mac and iPhone profits enabled the development and launch of iPad. "In both cases you have the new machine, with a new interaction model, not selling as well as many think it ought to, and the same prescription for both: make it more like the old thing." But that's a facile prescription that goes nowhere, and it's not Apple's way (thank goodness).

Reports of the iPad decline are almost certainly premature, making the glee in some quarters quite improper. As a standalone business, and just based on the last 12 months of revenue, the iPad would be in the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500. That's iPad alone, not Apple Inc (according to medium.com).

Of course, Wall Street always predicates on the best growth figures continuing upwards, then the sky's falling in when their ridiculous assumptions are proved just that. Then it's a pain in brokers' presumed potential profit. Does it make them look like idiots? Yes, but that never changes anything, does it?

As for the tablet platform you should desire - thanks to Apple introducing a decent tablet in the first place, proving the platform's viability, you get to choose from iPads or the devices of Apple's competitors. Buy what you will.

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