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Friday, December 1, 2023

The iPad Turns 10: A Look Back at Its First Decade

Ten years ago today, Apple revealed the iPad, the tablet that was supposed to change the world. Even though the earliest iPad was likened to a giant iPod Touch, Apple’s ambitions for the tablet were much greater than that. It was envisioned as a new kind of computing category, one that would change the way we read, watch, learn, and work.

The iPad wouldn’t ultimately fulfill all of these hyperbolic promises, but over the past decade, it has ushered in a new, more intimate kind of personal computing experience—and has arrived at the point where it can at least be considered as a possible laptop replacement. Below, WIRED tracks the evolution of the iPad.


On January 27, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the $499 iPad at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena center, and WIRED writers Brian X. Chen, Mark McClusky, and Chris Kohler were there to live-blog it (along with a lot of other dude bloggers, if the photos are any indication). “The zeitgeist excitement needle on this gadget has moved past Hula Hoop and Lady Gaga levels, and is approaching zones previously occupied only by the Beatles and the birth-control pill,” WIRED’s Steven Levy wrote at the time. Did it live up to the hype when it started shipping later that spring?

By 2010 standards, the iPad was thin—half an inch thin—and weighed 1.5 pounds. It had a capacitive multitouch display, ran on Apple’s custom A4 chip, and offered 10 hours of battery life, something that would win it praise in early reviews. WIRED’s review noted that watching video on it was “terrific,” as was reading on it, and that the iPad was well-positioned as a gaming platform. But the iPad was also hamstrung in its earliest incarnation. It didn’t have a camera, it didn’t support multitasking, the Safari browsing experience was limited, and the virtual keyboard came with a learning curve.

And, my goodness, those bezels.


The iPad 2, which started shipping in March 2011, had the same wide bezels as its predecessor, but Apple shaved off some numbers where it mattered most: in weight and thickness. The iPad 2 was 33 percent thinner than the one before it and a few ounces lighter. As Brian X. Chen noted in WIRED, “the changes to the tablet’s weight and ergonomics feel substantial.”

The iPad 2 cost the same amount as the first-gen iPad, ranging from $499 to $829 for a model with 64 gigabytes of storage and support for Wi-Fi and cellular. Its closest competitor at the time, the Motorola Xoom, started at $800—and only ran a smattering of tablet-optimized Android apps. The App Store, meanwhile, offered 65,000 apps made specifically for iPad. The App Store was only a few years old, but already it was clear that a healthy app ecosystem was a critical part of any mobile experience. (Apple’s App Store dominance would eventually become controversial.) “Without apps, after all, a tablet is nothing more than a fancy digital picture frame,” Chen wrote.

This was also the year that Steve Jobs died, in October 2011. In his final year, Apple managed to launch a Verizon iPhone, something that was crucial to the success of the phone in the US; nudge the iPad forward; and ship the iPhone 4S, which was the first iPhone to support Siri, iCloud, and a pretty darn good camera. After that, it was Tim Cook’s Apple.


In March 2012, Apple rolled out the iPad 3. Except it wasn’t called that. Apple named this one just “iPad” and flogged it as a new new kind of iPad. That’s because this tablet had a new 9.7-inch Retina display. With a resolution of 2048 pixels by 1536 pixels, it looked “spectacular,” according to the WIRED review. “Text on the new iPad is vividly crisper and sharper … By comparison, text on the iPad 2 now looks outright crude—visibly pixelated, even blurry,” Jon Philips wrote. This new tab also supported 4G wireless, included Siri, and finally had respectable cameras.

2012 was also the year of the iPad Mini, which launched that fall. Its “mini” moniker may have conferred cuteness, but this 8-inch tablet was “decidedly polished and attractive,” WIRED’s Christina Bonnington wrote. It was small enough for large-handed people to hold comfortably in one paw. While it didn’t have a Retina display, its screen was bright and crisp.

The iPad was here to stay, that much was clear. Apple had sold 32 million iPads in its fiscal year 2011, and was on pace to far surpass that in 2012. The big question was what Apple could possibly do next with this rectangular slab of aluminum and glass.


The answer: Not a whole lot, except make the thing thinner, call it the iPad “Air,” and sell millions of them.

The new tablet, launched in late 2013, was only 0.3 inch thick, a full 20 percent thinner than the prior large iPad. It weighed a pound, down nearly half a pound from the previous model. Plenty of people still weren’t sold on the iPad (this author included), but there was no doubt the iPad Air made tablets look sexy. Its starting price was unchanged ($499), and Apple had introduced a 128-gigabyte storage option earlier that year, pushing prices at the high end up to $929 for a fully loaded model.

What was becoming increasingly obvious was that Apple was serious about innovating in chips—its own chips, so the company could maintain infamous control over the “full stack” experience in its all-important mobile devices. iPads typically ran on “X”-branded versions of Apple’s iPhone chips, though the iPad Air was an exception: The iPad Air housed an A7 processor, the same chip in the iPhone 5S. But as Christina Bonnington wrote, it was “a 64-bit chip with 1 billion transistors … Users should see twice the performance of the previous generation iPads.” The iPad Mini 2, also released in 2013, ran on the A7 chip as well.


This wasn’t a particularly exciting year for the iPad. Apple introduced the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3—iterations on previous products, including a processor bump, a better camera, and more RAM. They both came in a gold metal finish, an addition to the usual white and silver aluminum. One of the biggest feature updates to the iPad Air 2, wrote WIRED’s Liana Bandziulis, was the addition of TouchID. “This is a significant upgrade; not only for quick-unlocking the screen, but for use within authentication for other systems like Apple Pay and HomeKit," Bandziulis wrote.

A week after Apple announced these new gadgets, the company’s earnings report showed that iPad sales were down for the third quarter in a row. Apple CEO Tim Cook pointed out that more than 225 million iPads had sold since the product line’s launch, and that the tablet market was still young. But, despite the fact that Apple was the clear leader in tablets, the reality was that plenty of people still didn’t feel compelled to buy any tablet—and those who did, didn’t feel the need to upgrade as often as they would with a smartphone. Apple would have to try something new to get people excited about the iPad.


Apple went big with the iPad Pro. Really big.

This new kind of iPad, introduced in the fall of 2015, had a 12.9-inch diagonal display. This made it suitable for someone with hands the size of Lebron James’s, according to WIRED writer David Pierce. It weighed 1.57 pounds, close to the weight of the original iPad.

But it wasn’t just its bigness that set the iPad Pro apart. It was designed to work with an Apple-made accessory keyboard, called the Smart Keyboard, and an Apple stylus called Pencil. (These, of course, cost extra; you had to shell out $169 and $99 respectively for those, in addition to the $799 starting price of the iPad Pro itself.) In doing this, Apple was taking direct aim at Microsoft’s line of Surface two-in-one machines.

The iPad Pro also came with a new chip, 4 gigabytes of RAM, four speakers for “shockingly loud audio,” and a whopping 12 hours of battery life. At its launch, Tim Cook had insisted that this new iPad was “a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people.” It became quickly apparent, however, that running iOS on a giant screen was not the same as using a laptop or desktop running a desktop OS. And the first versions of the Smart Keyboard and Pencil weren’t particularly well designed, especially the Pencil’s charging mechanism.


In 2016 Apple did a smart thing: It produced a more reasonably sized iPad Pro, bringing features like stylus support and the always-charged accessory keyboard to a regular 9.7-inch iPad. Plus, this smaller iPad Pro had something called True Tone display, “which calibrates the tablet’s screen so it looks right even if you’re in a room with weird lighting … Night Shift, which works on any device with iOS 9.3, changes the color spectrum at night so you can use the device without hurting your eyes or disturbing your sleep,” David Pierce wrote.

Still, he continued, this iPad Pro was best at just being an iPad. It was great for reading books, watching movies, and browsing the internet. Sure, you could run two apps side-by-side now, but that didn’t mean it was up to the task of being your full-time work machine.


Maybe it was that exact realization, that a pricey 9.7-inch iPad Pro was just an iPad, that led Apple to introduce this next tablet. Or maybe the company’s product pipeline had been determined years in advance. Regardless, most people would agree that a less expensive iPad was a good thing for consumers, and that’s what arrived in the spring of 2017. This new 9.7-inch iPad brought “the guts of an iPad Air 2 into the body of a first-gen iPad Air.” It also had a universal SIM, allowing the iPad to work over cellular service from any carrier.

The screen wasn’t as nice as the ones on more expensive models. It had two speakers instead of four, and it didn’t work with Apple’s Pencil or the accessory keyboard with the proprietary “smart” connector. But for $329, you couldn’t beat the price—especially if you were just using the iPad for, well, iPad things. Later that year, Apple would introduce some of the most dramatic updates for the iPad-specific version of iOS, overhauling the dock for the tablet, adding a new kind of app switcher, and letting users drag and drop text and images across iPad apps.


What better way to start off the new year than by producing an ad for iPad that spawned a million Internet opinions? The Apple ad featured a young teen browsing on her iPad, who innocently says, when her neighbor asks her what she’s doing on her computer, “What’s a computer?” The spot was supposed to showcase the versatility of the tablet and suggest that future generations won’t be as beholden to clamshell designs as us olds are. The ad has since been taken down.

Versatility would become something of a theme for the year. In March, Apple hosted an education-focused event in Chicago. There the company unveiled a non-Pro iPad that fully supported the Apple Pencil and ran on the new Apple-made A10 Fusion processor. It cost $329 for consumers and just $299 for schools.

Despite the tab’s low price, though, Apple was still losing ground to Google when it came to its footprint in the classroom, WIRED’s Arielle Pardes wrote at the time. Google’s strategy of rolling out Chrome OS, making an education-friendly version of its G Suite, and marrying all of that with low-cost laptop hardware had netted it tens of millions of classroom users.

Then, that fall, a thin-and-chiseled, nearly bezel-free iPad Pro was revealed. It had a 10.5-inch diagonal display, supported FaceID, and came with the option of 1 terabyte of storage. And it was fast. Also: The Pencil had been redesigned. The iPad, I wrote at the time, was now officially more interesting than the MacBook.


The iPad Mini is dead; long live the iPad Mini! In 2019 Apple not only introduced a refreshed, 10.5-inch iPad Air, it also shipped a long-awaited update to the 7.9-inch iPad Mini.

As I wrote then, the 2019 iPad Air and iPad Mini were “new” in the marketing sense of the word, but in many ways, the gadgets were throwbacks. They charged via Lightning port instead of USB-C, had large white bezels, and had home buttons instead of face unlock. And while the new Mini may have had a starting price of $399, it was no longer the least expensive iPad. The addition of these two models meant Apple now offered five different versions of iPad, even as the tablet market continued to decline.

Apple has always prided itself on offering comparatively few SKUs of its products, and at premium prices, but its iPad strategy over time seemed to counter that in some ways: There was no one-size-fits-all when it came to iPad, so Apple has had to introduce versions that would somehow appeal to kids, grandparents, movie lovers, artists, travelers, field workers, retail employees, and people who live and work in enterprise apps.

And it has done a pretty good job of that, selling more than 400 million iPads since the product’s initial launch back in 2010. In 2019 the iPad also got its own version of the iOS operating system, called iPadOS.

Has it “changed the world”? That depends on who you ask (and whether the person you’re asking happens to work for Apple). It hasn’t become the great savior of newspapers and magazines, and the debate over whether the iPad can ever truly replace your main computer is far from settled. But as a tablet, it has become a market leader, a kind of vehicle for new and legitimately interesting personal computing technology, and a category of its own. The iPad is very good at being an iPad.

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