Apple’s iPad Pro App Problem

on March 25, 2016

Apple this week announced the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro, a $599 product that joins its 12.9-inch device in targeting professional users. During the event, Apple reiterated its ongoing argument that the iPad Pro isn’t just a good replacement for an old iPad but that it’s also a suitable replacement for a personal computer (from here forward, I’ll consider a PC to be any device running Windows, Mac OS, or Linux). I’ve been watching this space since the beginning and I don’t think it is terribly valuable to revisit the whole ‘consumption versus creation’ debate about tablets. Obviously, plenty of people use them to get work done and Apple, in particular, has added features to the iPad like the ability to run two apps side by side that make this easier than ever before. But one challenge to Apple’s view of the future is the app story. Unfortunately, Apple’s iPad still has a professional app problem.

Now, the knee-jerk reaction to this comment is to point to the stat, put forth during the event by Apple, that there are over 1 million apps available for the iPad today. The problem is the overwhelming majority of those apps are geared toward consumers and carry consumer-centric pricing designed to drive high volumes of downloads. Alas, these are not typically the apps professionals need to make the transition at work from a PC to an iPad.

When we talk about business users, and especially users in small to medium-sized companies, there is an incredible breadth and depth in the types of software they are using on their PCs. Small software companies create, sell, and update much of that software, charging what it costs to support these activities. Unfortunately, these prices are often not sustainable inside the App store. The fact is, the current economics, as well as the discovery system within Apple’s App Store, are not favorable to developers that create more specialized business applications with higher selling prices but smaller target markets. And that’s before we discuss the challenges around the lack of free trials and fee-based updates. Apple can make a pretty compelling argument the iPad Pro has all the power a person needs to get work done but, if they don’t have the right apps, it’s a moot point.

Enterprise Mobility

As mobile has moved from hype to buzz to reality, there’s been a strong push by the enterprise to embrace it. The result has been a significant increase in the number of mobile apps commissioned and deployed by large companies. The success of these rollouts has been spotty at best, as evidenced by research by my IDC colleague John Jackson that shows an app launch failure rate of about 30% in US enterprise surveys from 2014 and 2015. Failure being, effectively, the launch of purpose-built enterprise app that didn’t gain traction with the enterprise users it targeted.

I bring this up to show the depth of the problem: These are apps specifically created and delivered to a captive user base that still failed. You can see why small app developers, faced with deciding whether to attempt to create a new, necessarily low-priced iPad app for professionals or just to continue to support an existing app for the PC would more often choose the latter.

MS & Adobe

During its September 2015 launch event for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, Apple brought out Microsoft to talk about Office for iPad. Today, those placing an order for a new iPad Pro can even have Apple pre-install Microsoft’s Office 365 on their new hardware. I happen to think Office on iOS is quite good. But its existence is driven by Microsoft’s realization that, for Office to stay on top, it needs to be on all platforms, not just Windows. Microsoft has deep pockets that let it subsidize the cost of creating apps for iOS and not worry about near-term profits (although I suspect its Office 365 subscriptions on iPad already clear that bar). I’d say the same about products from other large companies such as Adobe, which demonstrated its Creative Cloud at the same Apple event. Of course, there are exceptions among smaller companies, too, such as the Omni Group, which has a growing list of successful professional iOS apps. Finally, the partnership between IBM and Apple continues to drive a great deal of conversation around enterprise apps, but it doesn’t appear to be driving the creation of much in the way of general purpose business apps.

In the end, I’d like to see the iPad Pro become a larger part of the professional personal computing discussion. For many, it may prove to be an ideal end point when paired with an Apple Pencil and keyboard. From a hardware perspective, the iPad Pro is ready; from an OS perspective, I’d argue that IOS is getting closer all the time. But moving forward, if Apple wants to create the future it describes for the iPad Pro, it needs to make the necessary moves within its App store to incentivize developers to build the apps professionals in companies of all sizes need to get work done.