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So, what if your computer was an iPad Pro?

In its latest ad, Apple is not just implying that the iPad Pro can replace your PC — it's saying it is actually going to do more than your PC.


A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

Apple has a new ad for the iPad Pro, asking you to "Imagine what your computer could do ... if your computer was an iPad Pro." With this, Apple has come full circle in its positioning of the iPad.

I have argued before that when Apple brought the iPad to market in 2010, it tried extremely hard to position it as close as possible to the iPhone and as far as possible from the PC. At the time, that made perfect sense. Smartphones were still growing in popularity, we were only three years away from the iPhone launch and the App Store was in full swing. Drawing the parallel to what consumers wanted and loved was bound to generate demand.

At the same time, Apple had to make sure consumers did not think the iPad was a tablet PC, and so created a clear divide between the larger iPhone cousin and the Microsoft computer world. The easiest way to mark that divide was to concentrate on the fact that the iPad was more about entertainment and content consumption — it’s worth remembering that iOS did not have the enterprise presence it has today. While Apple also talked about content creation with the iPad, the underlying theme, especially in the Windows camp, was that tablets were not as powerful as PCs, and certainly not up to the job when it came to productivity.

A different market

Six years later, the market is quite different. While smartphone sales have considerably slowed, their functionalities and size have only grown, making them perfect for content consumption on the go. This, coupled with the fact that smartphones are always with us, has left little room for tablets to become a more central part of an average consumer’s device portfolio.

The vast number of PC users out there need to be convinced an iPad — and the iPad Pro specifically — could do what a PC does and more.

Most consumers also still do not believe a tablet is as capable as a PC, and neither do they think of it as an alternative to a PC when shopping for a new one. According to a recent study we ran at Creative Strategies, less than 5 percent of our U.S. panel had considered replacing their PC with a tablet. As replacement cycles for iPad lengthen, since many consumers see enough value coming from software upgrades alone, the vast number of PC users out there need to be convinced an iPad, and the iPad Pro specifically, could do what a PC does and more.

I advised before that vendors and Microsoft should stop talking about PC replacements, because that does not allow consumers to see what opportunity the new devices running Windows 10 offer. It seems that in its latest ad, Apple is doing exactly that: Not just implying the iPad Pro can replace your PC, but saying it is actually going to do more than your PC.

But what is a PC today?

While the iPad Pro has a hardware perspective that allows it to compete with a PC, it seems to me that the biggest battle Apple has on its hands remains the preconceived idea of what a PC is. Reading comments on Twitter on the new iPad ad, I saw the same points being made as six years ago: iOS is not a "full OS," there is no file manager structure, there is no access to a disk, multitasking is not comparable, etc., etc.

But the world is not the same as six years ago. Why do you need a disk when you have the cloud? Why do you need a file system when you are using different apps and your work is contained within those apps? Granted, not everybody works like that, but more and more people do. Our data shows that in the U.S., 80 percent of early adopters and about 30 percent of mainstream consumers have embraced the cloud.

Surface initiated the change, but legacy is keeping it down

The iPad Pro is not the first tablet trying to convince you it can do what your PC does and more. Microsoft has been trying to do the same with the Surface. As a matter of fact, many think the iPad Pro is nothing but a "Surface wannabe." On the surface, these two devices look very similar, but the premises that got them to market are very different.

Microsoft and Apple came to one similar product from two very different perspectives, and they are now fighting a battle on opposite fronts but with one common interest: Changing how people think of a PC.

When the Surface came to market — way before anyone was ready for it — it started something bigger than even Microsoft realized at the time. While the focus was on Windows 8 and the fact that Microsoft vendors were struggling to both compete with the iPad and fuel PC upgrades, the Surface actually started to challenge the idea of what a PC was. In its fourth iteration, and with a much better operating system at hand, the Surface could do more than a PC.

But not many people actually thought of it in a different way. Yes, it has touch. Yes, it has a pen. But ultimately, most people still see it as a PC. The Surface even calls itself a PC: "Your PC is restarting." So it is not surprising the Surface commercials show people using the Surface in their nonconventional businesses and end with, "I could not do that with my Mac."

I see this as a burden for the Surface, one that impacts its ability to convert more iPad and Mac users as well as to attract developers to the platform so that you would have more use cases beyond traditional productivity to appeal to a younger generation both outside and inside enterprise. Microsoft is doing a great job in creating its own apps and adding functionality to the underlying OS that benefit the Surface — inking being the best example — but more could be done so that the Surface could be whatever one wants it to be.

It is interesting that, as Microsoft and Apple came to one similar product from two very different perspectives, they are now fighting a battle on opposite fronts but with one common interest: Changing how people think of a PC. While the task seems more arduous for Apple because of the millions and millions of PC users out there, I actually think it will be harder for the Surface, as Microsoft needs to balance its own desires and goals with those of the partners in the Windows ecosystem.

Carolina Milanesi is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc. She focuses on consumer tech across the board; from hardware to services she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, Milanesi drove thought leadership research; before that, she spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as VP of consumer devices research and agenda manager. Reach her at @caro_milanesi.

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