It’s been 12 years since the iPad first arrived, amid hype that it was the next iPhone and pessimism that it would never live up to that hype. After some dramatic early years, the iPad has become a comfortable business that’s raking in about $30 billion a year in sales. It’s not the next iPhone, but in terms of Apple’s platforms, it’s roughly the size of the Mac.
What were the pivotal moments in the iPad’s 12-year history? What were the key events that led it from there to here? I’ve forced myself to rank the top moments.
The iPad launch (January 2010)
Before we get started, I’m going to admit that the announcement of almost any product is perhaps its most important historical moment. How could it be otherwise? So I’m not going to include that day in January 2010 when Steve Jobs plopped down in a comfy chair and scrolled with his finger through the front page of the New York Times and paged through an iBook.
It was one of Jobs’s great demos, literally leaning back on stage in order to showcase a lean-back device. In re-watching it later at home, I turned around to discover my five-year-old son staring at the screen, looking straight into the reality-distortion field. “Oh, I want it, I want it, we have to get it,” he said. He wasn’t wrong.
For years, people have observed that Apple’s iPad Pro hardware seemed so powerful that it couldn’t really be taxed by most iPad software. Faster iPad models seemed almost irrelevant, in that nobody was complaining that the iPad lacked the speed to do any job.
It’s a tough comparison. The fact that the iPad Pro has more or less the same hardware as the MacBook Air lays bare the limitations of iPadOS compared to macOS. And it calls into question the future of the iPad. Will iPadOS be made more powerful, like macOS? Or will the iPad continue to squander the power of Apple’s processors due to an inefficient and handcuffed operating system? Stay tuned.
Magic Keyboard (March 2020)
In the earliest days of the pandemic, Apple made a huge announcement via video and press release: a new iPad Pro, sure, but also a new accessory called the Magic Keyboard, which featured a trackpad–and necessitated a software update that added proper pointer support to the iPadOS for the first time.
What a surprising and shocking moment. It was the moment that Apple embraced the idea that, in certain contexts, it made sense to drive the iPad via a keyboard and trackpad. More importantly, Apple spent the time designing a new pointer that feels at home on the iPad, not like something imported from macOS.
Ultimately, these announcements showed that Apple really does have a vision for the iPad as a flexible computing device that alters to fit the way a user wants to interact with it. Attach a keyboard and trackpad, and it feels like a laptop. Pull it out of the magnetic case, and it’s a pure touch tablet again. This is what makes the iPad such a special device.
iOS 9 (June 2015)
A little more than five years after the iPad first shipped, Apple announced iOS 9. This version of iOS broke open the one-app-at-a-time paradigm that had existed on the iPhone since the very beginning. At last, you could now fill the iPad’s larger screen with more than one app at a time.
Split View and Slide Over weren’t exactly as flexible as floating, layered Mac windows, but they did allow iPad users to multitask at last. And while Apple has spent the last seven years figuring out how to refine the initial concept, it’s hard to imagine the iPad without multitasking.
iPad Pro and Pencil (November 2015)
Just a couple of months after iOS 9 shipped, the iPad took a bigger step forward with the introduction of the first iPad Pro. It was the largest iPad yet, with a 12.9-inch screen. This was Apple’s first stake in the ground, asserting that the iPad should be taken seriously as more than a content consumption device.
Key to the announcement was the introduction of the Apple Pencil, opening the iPad to artists and anyone else who could find ways to use stylus input to expand how they used the iPad. (I started using the pencil to edit podcasts, of all things! Turns out it was the perfect tool for that particular job.)
This announcement was really a defining moment for the iPad. Many of the promises from this event have not been fulfilled even now, but Apple keeps trying to get there, in fits and starts.
Chicago iPad event (March 2018)
Surprise! This seems like a weird choice, doesn’t it? In March 2018, Apple held an event at a high school in Chicago to announce, among other things, a new low-end iPad with support for the Apple Pencil.
I realize that this event probably wouldn’t be on the radar of most people, but this was an era where iPad sales and the iPad product line as a whole were a mess. After an initial sales surge, iPad sales figures kept going down, quarter after quarter, with no end in sight. When would the iPad hit bottom? And could Apple find a way to get people excited about the iPad again?
This event was emblematic in terms of Apple finally getting its iPad house in order. The introduction of the low-cost iPad, updated during this event, helped create some clear differentiation between iPads for schools and kids and homes and iPad Pros for the power users. Clarity is a good thing–and Apple has sold a lot of iPads since it figured that out.
But another light in the darkness, another sign that the iPad was going to stage a comeback, was Apple’s somewhat risky decision to let the low-end iPad use the Apple Pencil that had been previously an accessory only for the iPad Pro. This was great for the education market, but really it was great for the iPad as a whole. The trend of Apple very quickly moving iPad Pro features down to the rest of the iPad line continues to this day, but it really started here. And the Pencil was such an important accessory that it really did deserve to be used by every iPad user, not just those at the high end.
What will come next? I’m hopeful that later this year, Apple will make moves so important to the development of the iPad that this list will be obsolete. But for now, this is how I see it.