After a couple of years of not really using a tablet, I bought a new 9.7-inch iPad Pro last week. And though I wouldn't recommend one to most of my friends, there certainly is a group of people I know who I think would really enjoy one. If you zoom out from the idiosyncrasies of my social circle, this product could be a perfect fit for a lot of people.
But I think Apple may not reach them, because the name iPad Pro is misleading. Ever since Apple released iOS 9 for iPad with split-screen multitasking, the Apple community has been polarized around a debate over whether you can "get work done" with iPads. Some say yes, but most have said no. Far and away the most natural implication of the decision to replace the 9.7-inch iPad Air 2 with a similar-looking, more powerful device called iPad Pro is that this is supposed to be the device that makes you say, yes, I can use this thing to accomplish what I need to accomplish professionally.
For some people that may be true, but I think for most of us whose job primarily involves interacting with a computer it's not true. And that's what makes the choice of name such a disaster. Because there are lots of people whose jobs don't primarily involve interacting with a computer. And those are the people who should seriously consider buying a high-end tablet in place of their next laptop.
Smartphones don't fit every non-work need
Most technology commentary is done by journalists or developers, both of whom tend to use a computer as their primary work tool. And traditionally the main audience for online content has been people slacking off from a job that involves staring at a computer screen all day.
But lots of people — elementary school teachers, building trade workers, most health care workers, cooks and servers — have jobs that aren't like that.
And for a while, even if you didn't need a computer for work, you needed a computer at home anyway to participate in mainstream contemporary life. You needed it to email people and to check Facebook and to Google things and to shop on Amazon and everything else.
But as more and more people have bought better and better smartphones, the non-work case for PC ownership has gotten a lot weaker. PC sales have plummeted as people have invested their gadget dollars in phones rather than laptops. But the smartphone still can't fit every recreational computing need.
A small device simply isn't a great way to type out a longer email or to watch a television show or movie. These tasks don't particularly require a high-performance CPU, so an old laptop that you've just been hanging on to for a while probably still does them better than your smartphone. But what happens when that laptop finally gives up the ghost and breaks? Do you buy a new one?
The iPad is a laptop replacement for amateurs
Apple has a strong case that instead of buying a new laptop, you should get one of their "pro" iPads with a keyboard case.
Compared to a laptop that you can buy for the same money, an iPad Pro is equally good for email and other light typing tasks, has a better screen for watching videos, and has a form factor that is superior to a laptop for a lot of non-work activities.
If you want to curl up on the couch and do some reading, for example, a tablet works a lot better than a laptop.
It's not so compelling as a reading device that most people want to rush out and buy one to supplement their smartphone and their laptop. But if your actual computing needs are relatively light, as they are for non-professional laptop users, then buying a good-enough typing machine that's also a great lean-back experience looks like a compelling alternative to buying a low-end laptop.
Apple needs to rethink its naming conventions
Product naming at Apple is, in general, a mess (ask yourself what the "i" in "iPhone" stands for), but normally just in a way that offends basic logic rather than in a way that creates actual customer confusion.
But in the case of the iPad Pro, Apple's tendency to use "Pro" to mean "larger and more expensive" creates a real problem.
There is a market for professional iPad use among people whose job would involve heavy use of the Pencil. My guess is that Apple's top executives (and top executives in general) have jobs that actually don't involve that much heavy computer use beyond sending and reading emails, so they probably think of themselves as people who "get work done" on their tablets. But professional artists and Fortune 500 C-suite executives are both small markets. Mainstream computer-using professionals are going to want to keep using computers.
The big market for high-end iPads is people who don't need a computer at home to do work on. For these people, a tablet, despite its compromises, is good enough to meet their computing needs. And it's simpler and easier to use than a PC, while being superior as a general-purpose entertainment device.
But the idea of an iPad Amateur — a computing device for people who mostly use a computer to have fun and socialize — doesn't fit at all into the company's current marketing scheme. If Apple wants to get this product in the hands of customers who would find it most useful, they need to come up with a better name.