Exactly a decade ago, Steve Jobs introduced the iPad and shook up the world of tech. Where it sat in the market was a little unclear; he said himself it was in a third category, muscling in between the smartphone and laptop. The unveiling of the groundbreaking iPad was just days after 2010’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; when netbooks were the buzzword of the consumer tech scene and dominating sales in the personal computing sector. 

“They’re slow, they have low-quality displays, and they run clunky, old PC software,” was Jobs’ assessment of the netbooks that were being sold everywhere. “They’re not better than a laptop at anything, they’re just cheap laptops.”

Apple was about to offer their response to the netbook: a tablet with a  9.7-inch screen that put the internet into both of your hands. The marketing pitch of the new device was that you had a fully-functioning browser that you only needed your fingers to access. The iPhone was already at the forefront of browsing on mobile phones at this time, but the boast from Jobs was that consumers who bought an iPad would get “the best browsing experience you’ve ever had.”

Be better at something

There was a push from Apple to create a new category of device that would be better than a laptop or smartphone for certain tasks. Web browsing, games, photos, ebooks, email, video, and music were the realms that the iPad was optimized for. “If there’s going to be a third category of device it’s going to have to be better at these kinds of tasks than a laptop or a smartphone, otherwise it has no reason for being,” said Jobs.

The idea of the iPad was swirling through the rumor mill in the lead up to the Apple press event in January, ten years ago. Those who’d been at CES were expecting a type of slate device, and Microsoft wasn’t playing ball with that idea, laughing off the suggestions. At the time, Windows 7 had just been launched and it included some tweaks to its touch capabilities. 

The CEO of Microsoft in 2010, Steve Ballmer, went on stage for his keynote speech at CES to give demos of “slate PCs” from Pegatron, Archos, and HP. The “clunky old PC software” that Jobs poked fun at a few days later was being run on these devices, and Ballmer had visible difficulties finding his way around the HP Slate to show off the Kindle software and how good videos could look. At base, the slate was just the new Windows OS smushed into a new form without much consideration of optimization. Tablets had been on the Microsoft agenda as early as 2001, with their Windows XP Tablet PC Edition form, and there was even their ultra-mobile PCs that it tried out in 2006 – neither of them ever gained much market traction and eventually flopped.

Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet. Image credit: The Verge

Sell more than everyone

The iPad brought about a step-change all those years ago; a piece of hardware to challenge netbooks, laptops, and even the dominance of Windows entirely. This new, third category of device – tablets – wasn’t easy for some to swallow at first. For a few days after the announcement the name was derided, and even before it had been launched some analysts were certain that it wouldn’t work out. Wired mocked it as “little more than a giant iPhone” and few could see it becoming a major product in Apple’s arsenal. 

In the initial days after the launch, 300,000 iPads were sold and within two months the 2million sales barrier was broken. By the end of 2010, 7.5million units had been shifted, 2011 saw 32.4 million iPads sold, and by 2013 there was annual sales of 71million. Skeptics crawled back into their boxes and Apple reveled in sales of more than 350million units, although there hasn’t been a year as good as 2013 again.

Companies have tried to find an appropriate response to the iPad since it hit the market in 2010. On Microsoft’s part, they went hard out on their touch-friendly Windows 8 interface that came out in October 2012, and the Surface tablet was launched as direct competition to the iPad. PC manufacturers went into overdrive to get to market their versions of tablet and laptop hybrids, yet Microsoft had gone too far with the Windows 8 interface and Windows 10 saw a lot of the touch-friendly features rolled back or removed. 

Hold back all comers

Companies that use Android OS have worked on competitors to the iPad, with success being unpredictable. Samsung brought out its Galaxy Note tablet and smartphone ranges a little under two years after the iPad hit the market, and the devices at the phone end of the spectrum have shown themselves to be the devices that have been more memorable and popular. 

Fire tablets were Amazon’s answer to the iPad, and so far have been the tablet that has come closest to rivaling Apple. The success is mainly down to the low prices. In general, Android hasn’t been great at sitting comfortably on bigger screens, and app developers haven’t gone all-in on embracing tablet apps, either. 

The Galaxy Note has been a success, add that to Apple’s experimentation with the iPad Mini and the market is left open for Android to maximize their sales with big phones rather than full-scale tablets. Because of this market segmentation, there still isn’t really a competitor to the iPad on the market. All the big companies: Microsoft, Samsung, and Amazon, as well as others, have found a different niche to sit in in the tablet market rather than directly competing with the iPad.

Keep on moving

The lack of competition hasn’t led to Apple stagnating, however. As much as it started as a pure tablet device all those years ago, it seems to be encroaching on Surface territory in 2020. The bigger iPads in the range now all work with keyboards and have a stylus input. These features have been what have differentiated the Windows tablet. The iPadOS has also been evolving to be more laptop-like in its functions. 

Having spent many years being the in-between device that Apple had always intended it to be, the iPad was a definite success – it did everything that Jobs had demanded of it. Netbooks never quite died, they just switched up to become touchscreen laptops. The push from Intel with their Ultrabook was a big help in this sector, and the trickle-down effect means even the most budget of Windows laptops come equipped with touchscreens nowadays. 

The tablet market was revolutionized by the Apple iPad, and from that revolution comes a slower evolution. The decade ahead will tell us whether the iPad will remain in its own, third category that sometimes encroaches towards the laptop arena, or whether it will take a firm step into the realm of laptop. 

The article was originally written by Tom Warren@tomwarren at The Verge.