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Tech pundits like me hated the iPad — and that's exactly why it worked

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Steve Jobs first unveiled the iPad five years ago today. And I didn't like it.

"I don’t understand who this product is marketed for," I griped. "And I’m disappointed that Apple has decided to adopt the iPhone’s locked-down platform strategy."

We all know what happened next: the iPad was a huge hit. And my argument looks kind of silly in retrospect.

In a sense, though, my negative reaction to the iPad perfectly illustrates why the iPad was successful. The iPad wasn't designed for people like me who spend all day in front of a computer. It was designed for more casual users who value simplicity and convenience over power-user features. And there are a lot more of them than there are people like me.

Less is more

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The genius of the iPad was precisely that it had fewer features than a conventional PC. Most obviously, it didn't have a keyboard and mouse. It also didn't have standard ports for external peripherals and displays. And it didn't have a hard drive; its flash-based storage was a lot smaller than you could get on a laptop at the time.

The iPad software, a scaled-up version of the iPhone operating system, was more limited than PC software, too. The iPad doesn't let you have multiple, overlapping windows on the screen. It doesn't let you install software from any source other than Apple's app store. Internally, the iPad stored data in the same basic files-and-folders system as conventional PCs, but unlike on a PC the user couldn't access the file system directly.

For power users, these were intolerable limitations. We like our keyboards, our large hard drives, and the ability to have many windows open at once. But for ordinary users, the complexity of a PC offers little benefit. Most people spend more time reading content than writing it, so the lack of a keyboard isn't a big issue. They almost never installed third-party PC software, so limitations on doing this didn't bother them. And a lot of users never really understood their PC's file system anyway, so they don't miss it. The touch-based interface, which seems terribly limiting to power users, seems refreshingly straightforward to everyone else.

Stripping away these features allowed Apple to make the iPad, smaller, lighter, and cheaper than a full-powered PC. Removing the ability to install third-party software — and tightly controlling what makes it into the app store — makes the iPad less vulnerable to spyware and viruses. Eliminating access to the file system ensures users won't accidentally cause configuration problems by deleting important files.

Steve Jobs's genius was recognizing that making a successful mobile operating system required a clean break. Only by abandoning much of the complexity of Mac OS X could he create an operating system simple enough to work well on a tiny, underpowered smartphone. And that same simplicity made the iPhone's larger cousin, the iPad, more appealing to ordinary users.

This is an issue Microsoft is still struggling with. Microsoft had already been trying to create successful tablet software for close to a decade when Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. And the software giant is still struggling to get consumers to buy its Surface tablets.

But Microsoft has been hobbled by its attempts to build on its existing Windows franchise. By attempting to shoehorn all the features of a PC into a tablet, Microsoft has produced products that are too complex, confusing, and costly for the ordinary consumers who love their iPads. At the same time, most users who want the full power of a PC are just going to buy a PC.

I eventually bought an iPad, but I almost never use it. I did an informal survey of my Vox colleagues found that hardly any of them use iPads or other tablets either. But most of our parents have iPads and they love them. Many of our siblings do too.

iPad sales have plateaued

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After a couple of years of skyrocketing sales, sales plateaued around 2013. It has become fashionable to dismiss the device for failing to meet the lofty expectations set during its wildly successful early years. But the fact remains that the iPad is a huge hit; Apple sells about 60 million iPads per year, three times the number of Macs the company sells.

Yet the iPad's position as a device for non-power users also explains why it hasn't reached the heights of the iPhone, which sold 160 million units during Apple's last fiscal year. The iPad primarily appeals to casual users; the iPhone appeals to everyone. And the casual users who are drawn to the iPad are the type of people who don't feel the need to buy the latest and greatest every couple of years. Now that almost everyone who wants an iPad has one, it'll be hard to convince people to upgrade.

Steve Jobs once compared PCs to trucks — there will always be some people who demand heavy-duty equipment for heavy-duty needs. But most people don't need the towing and hauling capacity of a truck, a car works fine. Similarly, most people don't need the power of a MacBook; an iPad is all they need.