Apple's enterprise tablet challenge: Does the iPad Pro measure up?

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The iPad has grown a 12.9-inch screen and added keyboard and stylus options. Will this be enough to attract more enterprise buyers and reverse the sales decline of recent years?

ipad-pro-main.jpg
Apple's 12.9-inch iPad Pro with optional Smart Keyboard.
Image: Apple

Apple's newly announced iPad Pro comes at an interesting and potentially critical point in the iOS tablet's lifecycle. The iPad is widely credited with kicking off the modern tablet era in 2010, but sales appear to have peaked around the beginning of 2014, with consistent negative year-on-year growth since then:

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Image: Statista
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Data source: Apple

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Despite these declining sales, the latest worldwide tablet market share figures from IDC show Apple still in the lead with 24.5 percent, followed by Samsung with 17 percent. The next three vendors in the top five — Lenovo, Huawei and LG — only account for 13 percent of the market between them, with a long tail of 'other' vendors making up the remaining 45.6 percent:

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Data source: IDC

IDC's figures also highlight a seven percent year-on-year decline in the tablet market in Q2 2015, with only Huawei, LG and (to a lesser extent) Lenovo seeing increases in unit sales. (Note that IDC's numbers include 2-in-1 hybrids like Microsoft's Surface devices as well as slate tablets such as the iPad).

Apple's recent push to increase the penetration of iOS devices in enterprises, including partnerships with IBM and more recently Cisco, shows that the company is looking to emphasise the business use case to boost its flagging tablet sales (as well as to continue the unparalleled growth of its iPhone smartphones). Of course, iOS devices have infiltrated many enterprises through BYOD, but Apple is now looking to make it much easier for CIOs to deploy them officially.

Unfortunately, the latest news is not encouraging here, either. Good Technology's quarterly Mobility Index Report for Q2 2015, which analyses data from the enterprise mobility management specialist's customer base (using the Good Dynamics Secure Mobility Platform or Good for Enterprise), shows that iPad activiations have dropped to 64 percent, having accounted for 81%-92% of tablet activations since Q1 2013:

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Data source: Good Mobility Index Report

The dent in the iPad's enterprise footprint has been made by Android tablets, which grew from 15 percent to 25 percent between Q1 and Q2 2015, and Windows devices (including Microsoft's Surface hybrids), which saw a sharp increase from 4 percent to 11 percent of activations (having never previously accounted for more than 1%). As Good's report puts it: "The erosion in iPad dominance points to a change in the tablet market as the long-predicted role of tablets as laptop replacements finally becomes a reality."

So will Apple's new 12.9-inch Pro model prove to be the shot in the arm that the iPad evidently needs? To get an idea of the grown-up iPad's prospects in the enterprise, it's worth comparing what it brings to the table with some June 2014 survey results from Panasonic (maker of ruggedised Toughpad tablets) and VDC Research. Panasonic/VDC's survey respondents were 186 "individuals with direct experience and responsibilities for enterprise mobile solution design and application development either for their organization or their organization's clients."

The top four tablet requirements for enterprises, according to the survey respondents, are: battery life (30%), reliability (28%), security (23%) and price (21%). IT managers are particularly concerned with issues like the ability to work in direct sunlight, with gloved hands and in wet conditions, and with the effect of reliability on the total cost of ownership (TCO). According to the survey, each percentage point increase in the tablet failure rate adds 5 percent to the TCO, on average. There also seems to be a clear divide between consumer and ruggedised tablets when it comes to support costs, which amount to 90 percent of the TCO for the former, compared to 62 percent for the latter.

What's clear is that, even with a bigger iPad Pro in the ranks, the iPad remains very much a 'white collar' device, whereas many of the vertical markets in which tablets have a viable use case really require 'blue collar' devices with distinctly un-Apple features like ruggedisation and an extensive ecosystem of accessories (such as barcode scanners, smartcard readers, alternative connection ports, POS cradles, vehicle mounts and so on). Since Apple shows no sign of making a radical departure from its design-led consumer hardware heritage, the iPad is unlikely to break out of the white collar/knowledge worker market.

This bias is also evident in the roster of IBM MobileFirst for iOS apps available at the time of writing. There are currently 32 apps in total, 20 of which are designed for the iPad. Of these, only five (Asset Inspect, Rapid Handover, Expert Tech, Expert Resolve and Field Inspect) are aimed at field/warehouse workers:

IBM MobileFirst for iOS apps

Industry Apps Target users iPad iPhone Watch
Employee Experience Travel Plan business travellers x
Travel Track business travellers x x
Shift Sync employees x x
Shift Track managers x
Healthcare Hospital RN nurses x x
Hospital Tech technicians x x
Hospital Lead nurses, care managers x
Home RN in-home care providers x x
Retail Order Commit merchants x
Dynamic Buy retail buyers & partners x
Sales Assist retail associates x
Pick & Pack sales associates x
Banking & Financial Markets Advise & Grow bankers x x
Advisor Alerts financial advisors x x
Trusted Advice wealth advisers x
Loan Advise mortgage officers x
Loan Track mortgage officers x
Energy & Utilities Field Connect technicians x x
Asset Inspect field technicians x
Industrial Products Rapid Handover foreman x
Safe Site foremen x
Telco Expert Tech field technician x
Electronics Expert Resolve field service professionals x
Government Incident Aware police officers x x
Case Advice case workers x
Field Inspect field workers x
Insurance Risk Inspect underwriter x
Retention insurance professional x x
Travel & Transportation Ancillary Sale flight attendant x
Passenger Care customer service agents x
Passenger + flight crews x
Plan Flight pilot x

Outlook

The iPad (and more generally, any tablet running a mobile OS) is being squeezed: for communication and content consumption, large-screen smartphones (phablets) are better connected and more easily carried; and for content creation, ultrabooks and hybrids running desktop OSs offer more functionality for increasingly smaller trade-offs in terms of weight and battery life.

Apple, it seems, has two options in the business tablet market. The first is to make the iPad more like a laptop by increasing the screen size, offering a keyboard and adding advanced iOS features like multitasking — which is what it has done with the iPad Pro and iOS 9. However, the further it goes down this road, the more the limitations of iOS (such as the lack of a native file manager) become evident.

Alternatively, Apple could make its lightest and slimmest OS X laptops — the 2015 MacBook or the MacBook Air — more like a tablet, adding a touchscreen and a detachable keyboard to compete more effectively with Microsoft's increasingly popular Surface devices and their third-party ilk. That, of course, would require OS X to become touchscreen-friendly — something that Apple has so far resisted.

With that in mind, it's interesting to compare the key features of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with the 12-inch 2015 MacBook and Microsoft's 12-inch Surface Pro 3:

Apple iPad Pro Apple MacBook (2015) Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Screen size 12.9in. 12in. 12in.
Screen resolution 2,732 x 2,048 (264ppi) 2,304 x 1,440 (226ppi) 2,160 x 1,440 (216ppi)
Touchscreen yes no yes (10-point)
Keyboard optional (Smart Keyboard) integrated optional (Type Cover)
Digitiser + stylus optional (Apple Pencil) no yes (N-trig)
Weight 713g (723g with LTE), Smart Keyboard weight n/a 920g 800g, 295g for Type Cover
CPU Apple A9X Intel Core M Intel Core i3, i5, i7
GPU n/s Intel HD Graphics 5300 Intel HD Graphics 4400
RAM 4GB 8GB 4GB, 8GB
Connectors Lightning, audio, Smart Connector USB-C, audio USB 3.0, audio, Mini-DisplayPort, cover port
Internal storage 32GB, 128GB 256GB, 512GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Storage expansion via Lightning-USB adapter via USB-C via MicroSD, USB 3.0
Wireless 802.11ac + MIMO, Bluetooth 4.2 802.11ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0
Mobile broadband optional (LTE) no no
GPS yes (on LTE model) no no
NFC no no no
Sensors Touch ID, 3-axis gyroscope, accelerometer, barometer, ambient light Force Touch, ambient light ambient light, accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer
Cameras (rear/front) 8MP / 1.2MP 480p FaceTime (0.3MP) 5MP / 5MP
Claimed battery life 10h 9-10h 9h
User-replaceable battery no no no
Charging connector Lightning USB-C proprietary (magnetic)
OS iOS 9 OS X 10.10 (Yosimete) Windows 10 Pro
Security features

Touch ID (+6-digit passcode), 2-factor authentication, VPN API, Remote Wipe

Gatekeeper, FileVault2, Remote Wipe, iCloud Keychain, App Sandbox UEFI, TPM 2.0, BitLocker, Windows Hello, Windows Passport, Device Guard
Price $799-$1,079 (tablet), $169 (Smart Keyboard), $99 (Apple Pencil) $1,299-$1,599 $799-$1,799 (tablet), $129.99 (Type Cover)

It's clearly possible to create a highly functional and versatile tablet/laptop with a 12-inch touchscreen, weighing around 1kg with at least 8-hour battery life using today's technology. However, the best example of such a device at the moment is probably still the Windows 10-based Surface Pro 3. It's no coincidence that many IT managers and business users are eagerly awaiting the Surface Pro 4, or that Microsoft has recently kicked off a Surface Enterprise Initiative to counter Apple's recent partnerships.

The iPad Pro looks like an impressive device, and should generate an uptick in Apple's tablet sales. But whether it will arrest the long-term downward trend is another matter: it's unlikely to capture much of the 'blue collar' enterprise tablet market without a rethink of the industrial design, while building a true tablet/laptop hybrid may require some serious tinkering with OS X.

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