The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What we’ve learned in five years with the iPad

Happy birthday to Apple's tablet. (Photo illustration by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

On this day in 2010, customers lined up around the block to get their hands on the iPad, Apple's then-new and somewhat perplexing gadget. Some mocked it as a simply a big iPhone, or a solution looking for a problem. Others saw its potential but didn't know quite what it all meant.

To date, the company has sold more than a quarter of a billion of them.

The iPad, of course, wasn't the first tablet the world had ever seen, but it landed at a moment, and with a set of features, that sent the tablet market on a wild growth curve. Within just 60 days, Apple announced it had sold two million of the devices -- and other companies tripped over themselves to get competitors to market within the year. The tablet met a need in the computing space that just wasn't getting met by ultra-compact netbooks that had previously filled the space between a laptop and a desktop computer. On a conference call in April 2010, just after the iPad's launch, Apple's then-chief operating officer. Tim Cook. said, "To me, it's a no-brainer... I can't think of a single thing a netbook does well."

Consumers agreed. Five years later, netbooks are dead, replaced in the market's heart by tablets and ultra-lightweight but powerful laptops such as the MacBook Air or Dell XPS 13. And iPads, meanwhile, are everywhere: in schools, in restaurants and on the walls of art museums.

Yet analysts are quick to note now that tablet sales just aren't what they used to be. The category saw its first year-to-year dip ever in the last quarter of 2014, according to IDC, with 76.1 million units. Even Apple has seen its iPad sales growth dip; its latest earnings report showed iPad sales were down 18 percent from the same period last year. The slowing growth has been attributed to the rise of big-screen smartphones, such as the latest models of Apple's own iPhones. There are also lingering questions about just how many sizes of screen people really need and how often they want to replace their tablets. 

So, will tablets last? Former BlackBerry chief executive Thorsten Heins famously said in 2013 that he thought tablets would be dead within five years. (He was fired from BlackBerry within the year, in part for failing to compete well with Apple.)  But Cook -- now Apple's CEO -- says he's still "very bullish" on the product that Apple set into motion five years ago. And Apple has changed its selling pitch for the iPad -- from one that touted a consumer-focused product mostly used for consumption to one that touts the tablet as creation tool for schools and businesses, as well as consumers.  A 2014 partnership with IBM, a former Apple nemesis, showed just how serious the company was about bringing the devices into the enterprise market -- and where the company sees great potential for growth.

"I'm not projecting something very different next quarter, or the next," Cook said in the January call. "I'm thinking over the long run."

Meanwhile, Apple is getting ready to make another big bet with the Apple Watch -- a product that many have mocked as a solution looking for a problem, or one that they see potential for -- but don't get quite yet. 

Here are some key points in the iPad's history, courtesy of Apple:




  • March 7: Apple introduces the new iPad, featuring a new Retina display delivering four times the number of pixels of iPad 2; iPad runs over 585,000 apps available on the App Store, including more than 200,000 native iPad apps.
  • March 16: New iPad arrives in stores.
  • October 23: iPad mini is introduced, featuring a 7.9-inch design you can hold in one hand. New fourth generation iPad is unveiled.
  • November 5: Three million iPads (iPad mini and 4th gen iPad) are sold in just three days — double the previous first weekend milestone of 1.5 million Wi-Fi only models sold for the third generation iPad in March.
  • December 12: Pope Benedict XVI uses iPad to tweet first blessing.



January 27: iPad sales total more than a quarter of a billion worldwide.
March 25: British government announces all members of Parliament will be given an iPad Air 2.
April 3: iPad turns 5.