Apple iPad at 10: The Right Product for Its Times

Apple's iPad filled a crucial gap in a product line and our psyches

What: Apple's iPad launched 10 years ago today
How: It was Apple's first tablet. It filled a crucial product gap and set the bar for all other tablet manufacturers.
What Do You Care: The iPad started by changing how we consume and sometimes create content. Now it's helping define how we get work done.

Steve Jobs with iPad
Apple's Steve Jobs introduces the iPad on January 27, 2010. Lance Ulanoff

The Apple iPad arrived as a sort of savior.

  • It was supposed to save publishing
  • Turn our attention away from the loss of a king (Jackson).
  • Deliver an innovation balm to our Great Recession impacted psyches.
  • And revitalize an ailing CEO.

I remember sitting in the audience at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in California as Steve Jobs took the stage on January 27, 2010, roughly six months after returning from a six-month medical leave, which we later learned was for a liver transplant.

Looking thin but energetic, Jobs paced the stage as he laid out the need for something between a laptop and Apple’s wildly popular iPhone. The answer was not a Netbook (tiny, ultra-affordable laptops). It was the new iPad.

He was right. Even though Netbooks were doomed anyway, the iPad filled a necessary content consumption gap. People loved their iPhones, but the 3.5-inch display of early 2010 iPhones were limited for comfortable reading, long-form video, creativity, and productivity. Apple fans craved a big screen with all that iPhone usability goodness.

That was—and still is—the iPad.

Tablet Tale

An admirable aluminum brick, the first iPad generated almost as much desire and pure gadget lust as the original iPhone, which Apple launched three years earlier.

Jobs described it with typical hyperbole: "Our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price." but, in hindsight, he wasn't wrong.

The first iPad was seamless and substantial, with a glossy face that invited loving stares and lots of touches. It was even a TV star, with an entire of episode of the then white-hot Modern Family devoted to the husband Phil’s quest to get an iPad for his birthday. Modern Family, coincidentally, leaves the air this year as the iPad turns 10.

The first iPad generated almost as much desire and pure gadget lust as the first iPhone.

iPad sales were substantial and then crisp for years until they appeared to plateau and steadily creep downward. I often surmised that Apple had done too good a job with the industrial design. The devices were virtually indestructible.

Latter and much thinner models, like the iPad Air, weren’t as hardy, but it’s still not unusual for someone to own and use an iPad for five years (or more). The iPad upgrade cycle in no way reflects that of the iPhone, where Apple somehow convinces millions of people to buy a new phone every two years.

More than Just Consumption

From day one, the iPad was pitched as an art canvas, one without a physical brush or drawing implement, but a canvas, nonetheless. Apple wanted everyone to draw on the 9.7-inch screen with their fingers (many talented artists did) but the tablet also spawned a healthy third-party stylus market. Over the last decade I have owned and used up many soft-nubbed drawing implements.

But the pillars of creation and consumption were not enough to sustain the iPad market. Apple had to make some changes.

Original iPad
I still have my original iPad and it sort of still works. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

First, Apple juiced the business with variety. The iPad Mini split the difference between an iPhone and an iPad with a device that could fit in a purse or large pocket. It was a favorite for reading, possibly as or more popular than Amazon’s E-ink-based Kindles.

The iPad failed to “save” publishing (remember The Daily?), but it did give some major media brands like The New York Times and Conde Nast the nudge they needed to fully embrace digital content consumption. The time they spent creating bespoke publications for the iPad taught them all much about the digital media landscape to come.

Doing More

It was, obviously, the full embrace of productivity that transformed the iPad from a two-note screen into a lighter and more fun laptop substitute.

Apple started to fork the iPad development into standard iPads and Pro Models in 2015, giving them the room to introduce the once verboten Apple stylus (Apple Pencil). Granted, Apple did the stylus in a very Apple way, with a slightly impractical pencil-like design and Bluetooth connectivity that supported far richer stylus and screen interaction than I could ever get with analog drawing implements.

Apple made that choice only after the somewhat surprising success of Microsoft’s Surface Pro, a tablet that accepted both a keyboard and Bluetooth pen.

Like that Microsoft device, Apple’s iPad Pros also worked with special keyboards that snapped onto special copper connectors on the long edge of the tablet. The look of the iPad eventually transformed as well, stating its “get work done’ intentions with serious, flat bodies and distinct edging.

If there was one watershed iPad productivity moment, it was surely Microsoft bringing its Office productivity suite to the platform. If the company perhaps best known for its business-friendly platform and suite of productivity apps believed in the iPad as a get-real-work-done device, then surely we could, too.

The iPad of today is riding a wave of device convergence where no one questions getting real work done on a tablet. Thanks to Apple’s legacy of custom silicon, begun with the iPad, there are few mobile devices as capable of almost workstation-level work as an iPad Pro.

Apple’s iPad was the right device at the right time in 2010 and now, almost a decade after the man who helped bring it to the world left our mortal stage, it’s a product that seems poised to serve the needs of creatives, business people, and a whole lot of content consumers who like to sit up in bed with their iPad, bingeing Stranger Things.