If Tablets Are Replacing Computers, Why Doesn’t the iPad Have a Keyboard?

iPad Air doesn't come with a keyboard cover
The new iPad Air is a slick device, but it’s clearly not designed for getting work done. 

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Apple unveiled its new iPad Air on Tuesday, and as expected, it’s impressively light and sleek. But it’s missing something that a lot of Apple-watchers had hoped it would have: an attachable keyboard.

There were rumors ahead of Tuesday’s event that Apple was looking into iPad keyboard covers along the lines of Microsoft’s Touch Cover, which doubles as a touch-sensitive keyboard and touchpad for Microsoft’s Surface tablets. But the covers didn’t materialize. Instead Apple simply rolled out a new batch of smart covers, which is something of a misnomer: The only thing smart about smart covers is that they put your computer to sleep when you close them and wake it up when you open them. There’s no keyboard, no touchpad, no accessory port.

Sure, you can add a separate wireless keyboard to your tablet, or buy a third-party keyboard case. But these tend to be ugly and bulky to carry around, which rather defeats the purpose of getting an iPad Air. Without a real keyboard, a tablet can’t plausibly claim to replace anyone’s laptop for work purposes. So why didn’t Apple build one?

As I wrote in my (admittedly harsh) first take on the Microsoft Surface 2, the fact is that almost no one today uses tablets for work. People use computers for work, smartphones for communication, and tablets for entertainment when they’re on an airplane, on the toilet, or relaxing on the couch. Some may also use tablets in mobile work environments, like a doctor’s office or an Apple store, but rarely if ever for Word processing, or while sitting at a desk. Microsoft is trying to change that. And, to be fair, it’s on the leading edge of what many industry watchers are convinced will be an inexorable trend toward convergence of tablets and laptops.

But trying to change people’s habits is a risky business model. It might make sense for Microsoft, which came late to the game and is struggling to carve out a niche. For Apple, whose iPads dominate the market, it’s much safer to keep optimizing those devices for the purposes to which they’re best-suited: movies, email, games and the like. To Apple, even a beautiful, ultra-slim touch keyboard probably seems like a distraction from the ultimate goal of building the perfect mobile entertainment machine.

The big question is whether Apple is sacrificing long-term market leadership for short-term profit. Those who believe convergence is just a matter of time might view Microsoft as the plucky insurgent in the market, slowly but surely disrupting the established business model upon which Apple relies. In that scenario, Apple’s iPad sales—not to mention the sales of those fancy new computers it just announced—will continue to plateau and eventually decline unless or until it gives in and follows Microsoft’s lead. How’s that for a tech-industry turnabout?

It’s also conceivable that Tim Cook is right, and that the tablet-laptop convergence has been overhyped. As he told investors last year:

Anything can be forced to converge. The problem is that the products are about tradeoffs. You begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn’t please anyone.

So Microsoft is banking on people replacing laptops with tablets, and Apple is banking on people continuing to buy both.

Here’s an idea: They’re both right. Tablets will replace computers, but only for people who can’t afford computers. As the global masses continue to come online, they’ll increasingly use Surface-style hybrids for both work and entertainment. (Whether Microsoft can actually capture that market is a question for another story.) But the world’s wealthy will reject the tradeoffs that those devices require. Instead, they’ll continue for the foreseeable future to own at least three devices: a desktop or laptop for work, a tablet for mobile applications, and either a smartphone or smart watch for instant communication. And they’ll continue to largely prefer Apple’s finely honed products to those of its less tightly focused competitors.

The downside for Apple in that arrangement is that its iPads will never conquer the world. Indeed, as the Statista chart below shows, iPad sales growth has tapered sharply in the past year, and the iPad Air may not change that. But this fits with the approach that Apple took earlier this year when it declined to produce a really cheap iPhone. The upside is that Cupertino gets to keep its grip on the high end of the global marketplace, with all the fat profit margins that entails. And if Apple can’t make its next fortune selling tablets to people who can’t afford multiple devices, maybe it can make it selling smart watches to people who can.

Statista chart: iPad sales

Illustration courtesy of Statista