Co.Design

The iPad Is A Solved Design Problem

Why it's very difficult to imagine an iPad five or 10 years down the line that looks much different than the ones we have now.

Even way back in 2010, months before Apple debuted the iPad, the Consumer Electronics Show was a clearing house for a cornucopia of tablet designs, many of which tried to anticipate Apple's upcoming tablet. Four years ago, that meant that the likes of Microsoft rushing out a number of ill-considered devices such as the HP Slate in anticipation of Apple's forthcoming "iSlate," but things haven't changed too much today, with companies unveiling transformable tablets, giant tablets, teensy tablets, and more, all in the hopes of staying ahead of whatever Apple intends to do with the iPad lineup yet.

Yet such exotic designs miss the point. Apple is probably not going to do anything new with the design of the iPad in the near future, and there's a good reason why.

Go down to your local Apple Store right now and Apple will try to sell you two iPads: the iPad Air and the iPad mini with Retina Display. For all intents and purposes, these are the same device. They have the same processors, the same amount of RAM, the same graphics, the same storage, the same screen resolutions, the same battery life, the same wireless capabilities. The only distinction between them is one of size and weight.

Shorn from context, floating in a vacuum, both the iPad mini and iPad Air would appear identical as long as the bigger of the two was slightly further away. There's a reason for this. Both the iPad Air and iPad mini are, in fact, the same iPad, just seen from a different perspective. One is big, one is small. One is for creators, the other is for consumers. One is the high end, the other budget. But these are all matters of perception: the underlying design is exactly the same. The new iPads are a Janus: a singularity with two different facets at once.

What are we to make of all this? Simply put, as far as Apple is concerned, the iPad is now a solved problem.

When Apple first debuted the iPad in 2010, it was a solution to a perceived void in the computing market. The iPhone was more than just a cell phone: it was an ultra-portable computer that married great battery life and always-on internet connectivity with the immediacy and intimacy of touch. With the iPad, Apple wanted to bring these design considerations to a larger platform. They wanted to create a magic digital window you could carry with you.

The first iPad was a respectable first attempt at this goal, but the nature of a window is to forget it is there at all. You couldn't do this with the original iPad: it was big, it was bulky, and it was low-resolution. The iPad 2 slimmed the design down, and the third-gen iPad introduced a Retina Display that brought Apple's window to life with pixels too small to be seen by the naked eye. But it was still a supremely heavy device, surrounded by thick bezels: a window with a heavy pane of glass that was mostly frame.

Introduced in late 2012, the iPad mini stripped almost all of that window's frame away and brought the weight of the iPad down to under a pound, but that incredible portability came at the cost of slower speed and a lower-resolution display. It wasn't until this year that Apple finally made the window it wanted to begin with: two minimalist panes of glass, each weighing under a pound, that each peer into Apple's walled garden of apps and media like a pair of differently sized windows that open out onto the same digital vista.

But what now? Where do you go when you have created a device that is as powerful as most people's laptops, weighs less than a paperback, gets all-day battery life, features ultra high-resolution displays, costs less than $500, and is, in fact, only distinguishable from the next iPad by price and size? There are incremental refinements to look forward to, sure—some clock cycles here, some dropped ounces there—but if Apple's goal was to create a window, they have finally gotten to the point where they have stripped nearly everything away from that window's design besides the glass.

This why it's very difficult to imagine that an iPad five or 10 years from now will look, feel, or even function very differently from the ones we have right now. It's also why all the tablets of Apple's competitors at CES feel even more irrelevant than ever. Once you perfect the design of a window down to its essence, the only thing that matters about it anymore is the vista it overlooks.

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12 Comments

  • Tushar Joneja

    Design, by definition, is envisioning something before it becomes a reality. To assume limitations to further development of a design as successful as the iPad is, in effect, undermining the creativity and idea generation capacity of the human race.

    Where there is an opinion, there is always a counter. Great design is an opinion that resonates with the masses. But there is no way to say there isn't a counter to it lurking somewhere in the recesses of the human subconscious.

    We can only hope these counter proposals see the light in a place where they can be realised. It may not be in the Apple campus, but who knows?

  • Samir Shah

    Micro ways, 16:9, 4K and bigger size.

    Macro way, New UI/UX with 80" iCanvas and move to smaller size. This is another opportunity Microsoft will miss.

  • I had not used any tablet in years except for the iPad and iPad mini. The Mini was my favorite device in the world. Then I tried a Nexus 7 and I realized how much better the ergonomics were. It took me about 2 days to realize I did not want to use the Mini again. It was too much of a pain to hold.

    They will have to change the size because, frankly, they are behind the times with their size in the tablets just like they are with their phones. Soon I'm sure they will come out with a bigger phone to catch up to the obvious ergonomic and usability improvements that Android users have been enjoying for a couple of year. Shortly after getting the Nexus 7, I got a Nexus 5 and I was STUNNED how much improved the experience was with the bigger phone. I had been only on an iPhone since the first generation.

    "It's also why all the tablets of Apple's competitors at CES feel even more irrelevant than ever".... LOL!

  • Duane Bemister

    The new iPad is simply the original Macintosh, AppleTalk Network, and HyperCard refined to perfection.

  • I think this is a very short-sighted view of design. Apple (and others) are constantly looking for not only ways to improve design, but to fundamentally shift the way that people look at a problem. The iPad was a stepping stone to reality first envisioned in Star Trek. For the future, we can look to devices that are flexible in nature. You can always see the future by looking to science-fiction. Space travel was once science fiction; the Russians solved that in 1957 with Sputnik. In 2002, Stephen Spielberg envisioned 2054 with Minority Report. Now, the technical consultant that worked on that film, John Underkoffle, has Oblong Industries which has made that a reality.

    So, I say it's not ever a solved problem, but only creating a new one for others to investigate and envision what the new reality would be.