What will it take to get people to buy new iPads?

What does the iPad need next? Maybe nothing, and that's the biggest challenge of all.

Apple iPad Air
Josh Miller/CNET

My wife uses an iPad 2. She's happy with it. The iPad 2 came out in early 2011. There's nothing wrong with it, really. In fact, Apple just took it off the market earlier this year.

That's the problem with iPads: they're stable, polished, and don't change all that much. That's great for someone buying one, but it doesn't give much of an incentive to upgrade.

Apple's latest iPad sales numbers were down. Apple still sold a lot of them, but not as many as last year: meanwhile, the iPhone's numbers keep climbing. Is there really a problem? The iPad remains our top-recommended tablet. Tons of people have them. It doesn't feel like a product in decline. But I look back at the current iPads and see part of the problem staring right at me.

Perfect, but similar

The iPad Air and Retina iPad Mini are both nearly perfected iPads, in the way we think of iPads. They have the full feature sets people have been asking for. The Air was slimmed down; the Mini got its Retina display. They're both fast and have great battery life.

But, there's nothing truly new. In fact, the last really new must-have iPad feature I can remember was Retina display. That was early 2012. In over two years, we've since seen slimmer and smaller designs and faster processors, plus improved software. But no eye-popping new features.

The iPhone has had several over the years: the front-facing camera, Retina display, LTE, and most recently Touch ID. You can count improved camera tech, too, because the leaps in camera quality have allowed the iPhone to be a real point-and-shoot for many people. Few of these features have been unique to the iPhone versus other phones, but they've all been good reasons to upgrade.

Smaller vs. small enough

Smaller and lighter iPads are great, but here's a not-too-secret secret: the iPad's never been very heavy to begin with. Those who don't mind, and there are many, find the old form very portable, and very durable. Battery life, the factor many more people care about, has been great from the very beginning.

The iPad has 98 percent customer satisfaction, according to Apple. That's astounding. And it's maybe a tiny part of the problem. The iPad is like a tire that never wears down. I love that about the iPad. Its life cycle is more like a computer: three years, or even more. It's like the Kindle. I have a 2011 Kindle that's great, and I have no urge to upgrade.

To Jeff Bezos, that's just fine: I've been sold the cheap razor, and I'm buying plenty of blades. But Apple is out to sell hardware. Where does the iPad go next?

Be the new computer

I'd like iOS, and the iPad, to finally overtake Mac as the true Apple computer. But a lot of other things will need to happen first: clear file storage directories, a way to use more inputs, and a far more open way of using software and services so that the iPad can be whatever people need.

Here's my iPad wish list: trackpad/mouse support, a real file system, a kid mode, multiuser logins, true multitasking. But these can all be fixed with new iOS software.

I can't ditch my real computer for an iPad. No one really can. But adding in new ways to make the iPad a truer computer would make the iPad something much more worth buying. Yes, it would eat into Mac sales, but why can't a future iPad simply evolve into the new Mac?

Break away from iPhone

The iPad has been a great useful catch-all for a good 80 percent of my needs, but it's still, really, a larger-screened iPhone at heart. A larger-screened iPhone, however, might be on its way very soon. What about the iPad then, particularly the Mini? A 5-inch iPhone 6 is bound to cannibalize iPad Mini sales. But that's happened before: the iPhone cannibalized the iPod, the iPad Mini cannibalized the larger iPad. That's product evolution.

The iPad will always live in the iPhone's shadow if it essentially performs and feels the same way. The iPhone still has clear advantages: always-on internet, a superior camera, and true pocketability. Oh yeah, and it's a phone.

The very first iPad felt like a larger extension of the iPhone. And, years later, not much has changed.

Dream up new features

I can't think of what I really want in an iPad as far as hardware goes. Maybe Touch ID and a true way of using it across applications. Maybe more storage for less money.

I'm writing this story on an iPad right now: an Air, docked in a Logitech Ultrathin keyboard cover. It's doing just fine for me. It works. It's what I take with me.

So how is Apple going to top that?

 

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