Apple's Slick iPad Branding Hides A Broken App Infrastructure

Apple’s simplified iPad branding is trying to trick us into forgetting the technological mess behind the app store.

The iPad 3 is not the iPad 3. It’s just the iPad. And that small point is about to be a huge pain for consumers.

It’s clear what Apple is trying to do: they want to get away from the numbers game that’s fueled the computer industry (and they’ve done nothing but provoke) since the beginning. They want "iPad" to be synonymous with "oven," "car" or maybe even "Kleenex," to become an entity with a deeper cultural permanence, a product with the timeless utility of a Cuisinart.

From a brand perspective, the approach absolutely makes sense, as my colleague Austin Carr points out. Consumers can still distinguish the product—"Do you have the new iPad?"—and Apple can sidestep the inevitable mouthful of the iPad 22. So what’s the problem? The problem is that technology is still accelerating too quickly for generalized appliance-level branding. The iPad has more than doubled and doubled in speed since the original launched in 2010. Did your oven do that? Can you bake a pizza at 3,000 degrees? And if you could, would you still call that device your oven?

Apple’s solution is a car industry solution. We know Corvettes are fast and look sexy, so when you want something fast and sexy, you buy a Corvette. If you want to learn what’s under the hood—the precise torque, the 0-60 down to a tenth of a second—that information is out there, too. The system works, and it’s almost a perfect analog of the silicon-driven technology industry. But the Corvette of 1960 still drives on the roads of today. The iPad of 2010 can’t even run the apps of 2012, which is especially absurd as it’s Apple who owns the road system.

iPad branding isn’t actually a problem. The problem is that Apple buys into their own branding within their infrastructure. The App Store is a universal market for every iOS device. Apple differentiates iPhone apps from iPad apps, but in their quest for universal branding, they don’t differentiate iPad 1 apps from iPad 3 apps, or iPhone 3G and 4S apps. Developers themselves can’t flag their own calculation-heavy software as incapable of running on older, slower hardware, even if they know it to be true (beyond the notable hack of requiring the use of the iPad 1’s nonexistent camera). Put another way, the next generation of iPad apps will crush older iPads under their weight—and thus rendering a gadget you thought was going to be with you for a while buggy and slow, far before its time.

Developers can’t stop their own customers from buying iPad software that they know can’t possibly run on an iPad, some iPad.

This universal device branding, supported by a universal iOS infrastructure, is a facade for fractured technology. A consumer can buy an app with the touch of a finger, sure, but when that app stutters or crashes on their last-gen iPad, the experience is serving no one. The popular sentiment as of late has been to attack Google’s Android OS as fragmented, deployed in all sorts of various manifestations across countless pieces of hardware making it unpredictable and hard to use. That’s a fair and needed criticism. Android is fragmented, and more than the modern Windows PC, by the fundamental nature of its business plan and the quickly evolving mobile hardware market.

With iOS, a tightly controlled manufacturing chain and the App Store, Apple has the upper hand in usability and product clarity. That is, so long as they don’t blur the lines differentiating their own products so much.

[Image: Morphart/Shutterstock]

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  • iPad 1 and 3 owner

    Not sure if you know what you are talking about. I got the iPad 1 in may 2010. Just upgraded a few weeks after the new iPad was launched. But my ipad 1 from 2010 had no problems with apps in 2012. Was downloading and running all sorts of apps in 2011 and 2012 until I switched to the new ipad and enjoyed the superb display and faster speed. Do you a) have an iPad 1 and b) download and use apps from 2012 in an iPad 1? Otherwise it seems you are talking about something you are guessing about.

  • Keene McRae

    Why don't they continue with the car industry solution and distinguish everything by year? Apps are not the "road," they're more like the pieces that make up the design of a certain Corvette. You don't buy a 2012 windshield for a 1960's car. A 1960's windshield is not as advanced of a windshield, but it gets the job done. You can still drive on the "road," or rather the internet.

  • hypermark

    I think that this is more of a conceptual problem than a global one. Are there edge cases that push the envelope of device and iOS version combo? Sure. 

    Would it be nice to threshold app visibility based upon same? Sure. Is this a really small tail of a problem, where the trade-off is a dog of uniformity and greater simplicity? Yup.My only point is that Apple has chosen a path that does not address every edge case, focusing instead on the 95+% of cases where the distinction doesn't matter so much.You had the same dynamic on iPhone variants as you are having now with iPad variants (I own an iPad 1 and an iPad 3 so I see this firsthand), and it's a total exaggeration to say "broken," as app makers had multiple paths to choose where their cut points were from a support perspective. As such, it's more of a case of what Apple has optimized their discovery and access around.

  • Quinnbarry

    For a company that 'appears' to have a love affair with the consumer, they do go out of their way to show that they are actually indifferent to your needs. I use them because the rest of the industry is far worse, not because they are good. There is a difference.

  • tkbrdly

    App descriptions often start with "… is a universal app that runs on iPad 2 or later and iPhone 4 or later." Surely buying into such an eco-system with a new device you'll know what generation the device is or at minimum the name of the device that came before it.

  • tkbrdly

    mobile devices obsolesce faster than computers, but part of buying any electronic device is gain a general understanding of its specs - I'm sure you know how much RAM your computer has, how is that different for an iPad?

  • David Linssen

    Smart observation. Maybe not so much of a problem right away, but certainly an important factor over time. Who can remember exactly if he's got the iPod Touch 3rd or 4th generation. So how can Apple proceed without differential branding?
    The good news is that Apple owns the consumer relationship. So instead of displaying generic information in the iTunes Store as they do now: "iPhoto for iOS works with iPad 2 or later and iPhone 4 or later." Apple can combine the user info and the device info and signal if a certain app will work on your device. That's not fragmented, thats great service!

  • Benjamin Simerly

    I think what the Apple Devotes are missing is that Mark is talking about a very real issue here.  For a PC brand, this issue is expected, and understood-old devices wont work with newer software as well, or at all.  But Apple's mantra is the exact opposite.  Apple has (though I think inevitable) run into a wall that they created.  That said, I think no matter how great a company is, they are bound to run into some serious walls.  Its just part of innovation.  The interesting part will be to see how they get out of this.  Whether it will be through further innovation and design, or more likely, by waving their pr and marketing hand in front of the children of the apple corn saying "you know of no issues."  At which point these Apple Cornies will start preaching that Apple created The Force and wrote Star Wars.  "Who is George Lucas ?  Apple invented that!"

    Thanks for the article Mark.  I think you made a very good point.  And despite what some here might think, I don't think I have to agree with your points 100% in order to appreciate what your trying to say.  But then again I guess that makes sense, I use a PC. 

  • Tim Richardson

    I wouldn't worry too much ... it's an interesting theoretical problem, but Apple has a good track record. We're running OS X Lion on a five year old Macbook, for instance. OS upgrades comes through pretty fast for iOS devices, so unlike Android and Windows developers, at least developers have an easier time with APIs.  It's app developers who will decide how important it is to respect the capabilities of older devices.

  • Lyh_8079

    Other brand catches customer's attention by changing product featrues.
    Apple doesn't.
    Apple catches attention by nothing changing.
    So cool Apple is.

  • Asdf

    Nonsensical mental masturbation, and pretty incorrect too. Most 2010 iPads can run nearly all apps in the store.

  • Rogerio Silva

    What a load of useless banter from one opinionated perspective. Technology advances everyday. Apple leads the market, hence their mobile devices are the market leaders. Since the launch of the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, Apple's infrastructure has surpassed Google's, Microsoft, Nokia and RIM is dying a slow, painful death. This is not an opinion, it's reflected in Apple's market value sitting second to the biggest oil companies in the world with 500 billion+ capital? Where is the weak infrastructure? Comparing it kitchen appliances and cars? Very thoughtless and I agree with RYNFRZ, what happens when fossil fuel operated cars are no longer compliant for roads, will the super cars of today be dinosaurs even though by today's standards they are technologically superior to the average passenger car? Sorry to the rich bloke who spent a million plus on a McLaren, your car was made within a poor infrastructure who did not consider the future.

  • rynfrz

    All this chatter is absurd. This article insinuates that Apple is purposefully making the original iPad obsolete. Wrong. They are making better iPads. That's it. Developers want to capitalize on the newest features to drive app adoption. Of course. Lines are blurred between a future date when a high percentage of apps stop working for iPad 1 and today as if it's already happening. Incorrect. Bloggers say the iPad hasn't impressed enough. Hasn't blown them away this time. More power and more capabilities have been the complaints and yet this underwhelming iteration is moving too quickly. Apple just can't win! Comparing the iPad with a Corvette considering roads haven't changed fundamentally since the Apian way is ridiculous. Has your oven improved vastly? No?? Then why should a computing device. Android has several OS iterations in full use and even being simultaneously shipped as "new" devices. iOS 5.1 is what you get with Apple. Not jellybean or ice cream sandwich, honeycomb, or any other nonsensically named flavor that does nothing to assist their consumers. New devices out the gate are incapable of running apps with Android. Apple's doing it wrong? Give me a break. I wonder what all the Corvette owners are going to say the day fossil fuel operated vehicles are no longer compliant with the road. Drat! There's always a scam somewhere!

  • Ravi

    Interesting perspective Mark, made me think..Apple's definitely is going to have this challenge of rapidly accelerating improvements in hardware, this is an important challenge but not as critical as Android's fragmentation.

  • SLAP A TEAhadist

    From a purely apple enthusiast perspective, the iPad 3, being priced equally to the 2, may scoop up a lot of the folks that haven't taken any iPad plunge just yet. It almost seems like the 3 is just a 2 in a different box. Someone mentioned that the retina deal is nothing, and I agree, I cannot tell any real difference. I do agree that it could be getting back to the original, "iPad" brand but that is already taking place without any numbers. Your iPad is just your iPad. Does anyone go around saying, "oh this is the 2"? No, most of us just say "where is my iPad" or "look it up on the iPad" kind of thing. Interesting article, thanks!

  • Guest

    You could have as well said in the closing sentence; "That is, so long as they don't blur the lines FRAGMENTING their own products so much".

  • Jnaina

    The vast majority of iOS apps works fine on the old 1st gen iPad. My kids use them for educational courseware apps, for web browsing, email, Facebook, twitter, etc. Apps account for about 20% of their iPad activity. The vast majority of their time is spent on the Safari browser, which is more than adequate for the job. Even as the new iPad has been incrementally upgraded, it does not follow that the older iPads are obsolete or orphaned. Quite a number of Retina compatible apps can discern if you have the older Ipad and can gracefully scale down.

    The next thing you are going to tell us is that Microsoft is doomed because their upcoming Windows 8 will not work on the old Intel 386 PCs.

  • Andy Assareh

    This post is hilarious. So, better to just give up entirely rather than push technology forward?

    Author also conveniently ignores that the new iPad has basically the same CPU as the iPad 2.

  • hoseibo

    When Technology is advancing, the new software will always taking over the old one due to the hardware capabilities (e.g RAM, CPU, and HDD etc).  If they have to integrate for the whole generation, it's possible ipad technology won't improve that much for the future. As i Believe, Apple is always looking beyond. It a nature for old ipads to be eliminated.

  • Zdawgsf

    Indeed. In a nascent market, backwards compatibility is a cornerstone of building a strong foundation. The iPad 3 does two things really well: offer an uninspiring new feature people don't really care about (retina), and alienate the app developer base by making all existing apps look terrible on it. Moral of this story: Nurture your ecosystem - don't spank it when it can't keep up with your expectations.