Can the iPad Pro save Apple's slumping tablets?

The premium tablet market feels the squeeze

Apple's latest financial results are pretty much what everybody expected: while Google goes around trying to organise all the world's information, Apple is busily hoovering up all the world's money.

Apple is now sitting on $207.5 billion in cash, fuelled partly by Chinese growth – that region accounts for 24% of Apple revenues – and largely dependent on the iPhone, which shifted 48 million units.

Next quarter will make that number look like small potatoes, as this quarter ended just days after the launch of the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. Macs are doing great numbers too, with a record-breaking 5.7 million Macs sold during the quarter.

It's not all good news, though. Apple isn't discussing Watch sales, which suggests they're still relatively small: the 'Other Products' category, of which the Apple Watch is part, grew by $1.15 billion compared to the previous year; that in turn was up $400m over the year before.

But Other Products isn't just the Watch. It also includes the Apple TV, Beats, iPods and accessories. Apple may be happy with Watch sales so far, but it isn't happy enough to tell us what the numbers are.

The most interesting numbers are the iPad ones, though. Shipments were 9.9 million during the quarter, a drop of 19.5% over the previous year.

It's still a big business – more than $4 billion per quarter – but that's the first time iPad shipments have dropped below 10 million since 2011. It's also the first time that iPad sales generated less money than Mac sales.

Is the iPad in trouble, and if so is the iPad Pro the answer?

The short answers are "maybe", and "probably not".

iPad Pro won't fix iPad woe

The iPad numbers will improve – it's a more seasonal product than other Apple kit, so for example iPad Minis are big sellers as gifts in a way that, say, Mac Pros aren't – but seasonal variations aside, the trend is still downwards. What's going on?

iPad sales are dropping for a whole host of reasons. It no longer has the market to itself in a world of Samsung Tabs and Kindle Fires. It's being squeezed by ever more capable smartphones and phablets at one end and by ever more portable laptops at the other.

It's a device we replace much less often than we do smartphones, partly because each new generation isn't hugely different from the one it replaces. And it isn't generally subsidised by phone companies to make it seem cheaper than it actually is.

Will the iPad Pro change that? Probably not: it's an expensive product aimed at a niche market, and if people can't be convinced to drop £399 on a new iPad Air 2 then the bigger iPad's heftier price tag will be an even tougher sell.

Pros will love it and it should do interesting numbers in enterprises, but for most consumer iPad users it's overkill.

Normal iPad sales may not continue to plummet, but they're unlikely to start soaring either.

And Apple's totally fine with that.

The big iPad picture

There are two interesting trends to look at. The first is the proportion of first time buyers - that is, people who've never bought a tablet before. Apple says that in the west, 40% of iPad buyers are new to tablets. In China the numbers are even bigger: 70%.

That ties in nicely with the second trend, which is what Tim Cook calls "cannibalisation of the iPad". According to Cook, that cannibalisation is being done by the iPhone and the Mac, not by rival devices. People are coming on board with the iPad, but once on board they're buying iPhones or MacBooks.

This is being spun as terrible news for Apple, but of course it isn't. Apple would much rather sell you a iPhone 6S Plus 64GB or a MacBook than a iPad Air 2 or an Pad mini 2 - both of which cost a chunk less.

And if you don't buy anything at all, there's always iTunes media, Apple Music, iCloud storage plans and endless Lightning cable replacements to flog you. As long as you're sticking within Apple's warm embrace, Apple is quite delighted.

Apple would only be unhappy if iPads weren't selling because people were switching to Windows or Android, and there's no evidence that that's happening in any significant way.

Maybe the problem is that people have got the iPad all wrong. It's not the same kind of product as an iPhone; it's closer to a PC or laptop in terms of its size, its price and its abilities.

It's filled and will continue to fill a niche, but for many people the smartphone has become so good that they don't need anything else.

Whether it's Facebook user numbers - mobile-only users are 44% now, a figure that's doubled in two years - or US smartphone ownership - up from 35% in 2011 to 64% now, with 19% of owners using their phone as their primary internet device - the trends are all pointing in the same direction: smartphones are winning.

It's not that tablets are bad. It's that smartphone just keeps getting better.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Former lion tamer, Girls Aloud backing dancer and habitual liar Gary Marshall (Twitter, Google+) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to .net, MacFormat, Tap! and Official Windows Magazine as well as co-writing stacks of how-to tech books. "My job is to cut through the crap," he says. "And there's a lot of crap."