Heading into Apple’s iPad and Mac event this Thursday, there’s no question that demand for their smaller brother — the iPhone — is surging. A record of 10 million iPhones sold in the opening weekend is reportedly on the cusp of being trumped by an additional 20 million pre-orders for China alone. According to the Wall Street Journal, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus demand has so outstripped supply that Apple postponed a brand new iPad’s production in order to make more iPhones. That’s just amazing.
But in recent months, iPad and Mac sales seem to have plateaued, leading iLounge’s editors to contemplate the future of Apple’s computers. It was no shock that Macs would lose ground to similarly-featured tablets, so it’s also not surprising that iPads could suffer as iPhones evolve into increasingly capable alternatives. Is that what’s happening? How should Apple address what appears to be a rapidly changing marketplace? We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we wanted to raise several points for your consideration, and hopefully thoughtful discussion.
(1) Are The New iPhones Cannibalizing iPad Sales? The iPad has surged in popularity since its 2010 introduction, but quite a few people have steadfastly maintained that their iPhones did everything they need. This was harder to visualize in a world of 3.5” iPhone and 9.7” iPad screens, where the devices were obviously very different from one another physically. Back then, the iPhone was clearly the easier “take it everywhere” device while the iPad was the more optional “use it at home or maybe at work” alternative to a computer.
Over time, iPads shrunk and iPhones grew: the gap between 7.9” iPad minis and 5.5” iPhone 6 Pluses is smaller than ever. People who tried to stuff iPad minis into oversized jacket pockets are now thrilled to fit 5.5” iPhone 6 Pluses into oversized pants pockets. Because of the iPhone 6 Plus, even people who previously relied heavily on iPads — including us — have started to shift away from the smaller iPad minis we’ve loved, as the new iPhone does most things well enough. Many iPhone 6 Plus users may conclude, as we have, that only the iPad Air is worth using alongside the larger iPhone… and perhaps only occasionally.
The reason: the iPhone 6 Plus and iPad mini overlap too much for a single user’s needs. Despite the fact that you can fit two iPhone 6 Plus screens on an iPad mini screen, the displays of the big iPhone and small iPad now look very similar when playing 16:9 videos and many games. Yes, reading pre-formatted books and magazines is markedly easier on the iPad mini than on any iPhone, and content creation apps are still better-formatted for iPads. But users who care more about consuming content than creating it are going to find the iPhone 6 Plus to be an iPad killer.
(2) What Is Apple’s “Next-Generation” iPad Vision? While Apple could make a major announcement as soon as this week, the company’s future iPad strategy appears to be on autopilot: everyone’s expecting new iPads that are once again thinner, faster, and with more iPhone-like features. This familiar, iterative strategy worked pretty well for the iPad up until sales slowed down this year, but as we saw with the iPod, Apple is indeed capable of hitting a creative wall with a product line. Touch ID seemed inevitable for the iPad Air once it was introduced in the iPhone 5s last year, but when you really think about the feature, is it really going to be that useful on a 9.7” tablet?
It would be reassuring to hear that there’s something “revolutionary” still planned for the iPad pipeline. Despite rumors that Apple has considered obvious iPad tweaks such as improved touch recognition, major camera improvements, or the ability to transform into a keyboard-laden notebook, nothing concrete has come of them. There’s clearly truth in persistent reports of a 12” iPad and support for split-screen iPad multitasking, but simultaneous credible reports of a 12” Retina MacBook Pro demonstrate that Apple wants to keep the iPad and Mac lines separate, and is willing to create (arguably artificial) hardware and software differentiators to do so. Just as was the case with larger smartphones, customers may well start looking elsewhere if Apple’s not willing to meet their needs, and a tablet that can fully replace a laptop is an identified need, though an elusive one.
(3) When – If At All – Will Apple Fix The iPhone 6 Plus UI Mess? We praised iOS 8 as generally quite stable and polished when we tested it on the iPhone 5s, but the iPhone 6 Plus version has problems. Put aside the briefly available, cellular data-killing 8.0.1, and focus instead on the messy set of iPhone 6 Plus-specific UI changes that weren’t fully finished when the device was released. These changes fall into three categories: new landscape app layouts, dynamic third-party app layouts, and screen scaling.
(a) New Landscape App Layouts. iOS 8 introduced a collection of new landscape-orientation features specific to the iPhone 6 Plus; consequently, most of iOS 8 can be used in landscape mode, but not all of it. For instance, an optionally landscape Home Screen must always be unlocked with a portrait Lock Screen, some apps have redesigned wide views, other apps (most notably Camera) have odd mishmoshes of inconsistently rotating elements, and for whatever reason, the Phone app doesn’t rotate at all.
Even with a surplus of pixels, font sizes across iOS 8 are inconsistent — most notably in the top-of-screen status bar, which switches sizes from the Lock Screen to the Home Screen — and the spacing of elements, including Home Screen icons relative to that status bar, can look “off.” We’ll just skip over the messed up landscape mode in the Music app, because it’s been a mess on every device since iOS 7. Particularly on the iPhone 6 Plus, iOS 8 has not received the sort of app-deep, pixel-level fine tuning it needs.
(b) Dynamic Layouts. Back at WWDC, Apple explained that iOS 8 apps would be able to automatically move buttons and text around for upcoming — and at that point unspecified — screen sizes. It hinted that developers could tweak their apps to work on new devices even if they didn’t know what the form factors were. But in so doing, Apple uncharacteristically ignored key questions about new device usage models: how should an app automatically move a given button if the developer doesn’t know whether the screen will be used with one or two hands? Apple used to minimize ambiguities like this; now, iPhone developers need to worry about three different screen sizes and output resolutions, which notably may not actually match the screens’ resolutions.
(c) Screen Scaling. Apple’s new Display Zoom feature compounds the prior issues. In concept, Display Zoom is overdue, because it helps users with less than 20/20 vision to see what’s on their iPhone screens. The iPhone 6 or 6 Plus can display an enlarged version of the next-smaller device’s UI, such that the 4.7” iPhone 6 screen is filled with the contents of the 4” iPhone 5/5s screen, and the 5.5” iPhone 6 Plus screen replicates the 4.7” UI of the iPhone 6. This makes icons and (some) text bigger on the new iPhones, rather than using all of the screens’ extra space for more text or graphics.
In execution, however, Display Zoom adds new ambiguities that may undermine the creation of iPhone 6 Plus-specific interfaces. First, it disables the iPhone 6 Plus’s new landscape app interfaces. Second, it changes the landscape keyboard — positively — and third, it makes the screen a little less crisp, since fewer pixels are being used to render UI elements. If a significant number of iPhone 6 Plus users choose to use the “zoomed” iPhone 6 resolution, developers probably won’t bother redesigning their UIs to perfectly fit the larger, higher-density screen — they can just worry about older devices (iPhone 5/5s) and “support” both iPhone 6 models with an iPhone 6-specific UI. We’ve already seen hints that some developers are considering this approach. Game developers may also not bother to optimize the performance of their games for the Plus, forcing players to tinker with resolution settings to achieve higher frame rates. Apple all but condemned unoptimized games in the past; now it’s all but forcing developers to consider releasing sub-optimized games.
Practically, this means that iPhone 6 Plus users may well continue to see a mishmash of different app font and button sizes, including some that look much too large, without any real way to remedy the issue. It also means that split-screen two-pane apps may remain few and far between for the iPhone 6 Plus, and that games might actually look less impressive on the Plus than on the standard iPhone 6. There’s no way of knowing right now exactly how everything is going to sort out, but if rumors of yet another iPad screen resolution (a 3x Retina mode) pan out, it’s certain that iOS developers will be stretched very thin trying to adjust to all of the changes.
In a perfect world, this week’s event would resolve these issues: Apple would announce new iPads that clearly differentiate themselves from the latest iPhones, enunciate a bold vision for the iPad’s future, and release iOS 8.1 with significant improvements to the iPhone 6 Plus user experience. Realistically, we’d be surprised if any of those things happen; Apple will more likely debut iterative iPads, say nothing about its future plans, and wait until some unspecified date — quite possibly next year — for bigger iOS changes. But these topics should be on the company’s agenda, and Apple users should get some good answers sooner rather than later.
What do you think, readers?