14 Years Ago, Apple Changed Computing When Steve Jobs Sat on a Chair

The flexibility of Apple’s tablet has been both its greatest strength and weakness.

Steve Jobs sitting on a leather chair demonstrating the original iPad that released in stores on Apr...
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The iPad has always existed between things. In fact, it was originally pitched as existing in between the iPhone and Mac, capable of things both devices can do, but designed to be better at a few key tasks.

From one angle, that made the iPad the antithesis of netbooks, pale imitations of notebook laptops Steve Jobs characterized as not being particularly good at any one thing because of their cramped keyboards and lousy performance. From another angle, the iPad was a big version of the iPhone, a home for touchscreen apps and games, but in many ways a better version, especially if you liked watching video, browsing the web, or reading books.

Now 14 years since its original release on April 3, 2010, and over a year since Apple last updated it, the future of the iPad is more complicated and laptop-like than ever. Apple’s tablet has changed radically since the first-generation model was introduced in 2010, not necessarily in its capabilities, but in how Apple fits it into its lineup. The original iPad proposed a turn towards a casual, iPhone-inspired vision for the future of computing that has come to pass, but not entirely in the way Apple imagined.

A “Big iPhone”

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Looking back at the presentation Steve Jobs gave to introduce the iPad, you can see how it was a powerful idea, but also why it’s in the strange position it’s in now. Jobs claimed that the iPad would be specifically better at web browsing, email, photos, video, music, games, and ebooks. The iPad’s adoption of the iPhone’s interface, paired with processing power and screen size that was approaching entry-level laptops, would allow it to be better suited to the task than the devices it was squished between. A loose pitch, but not necessarily an uncompelling one: People like bigger screens.

What stands out about Jobs’ framing now isn’t how loosely the iPad was described but what happened after. While most Apple keynotes up until that point had involved clicking through slides and standing by podiums for demos, after Jobs introduced the iPad, he immediately sat down in a leather chair on stage and started using it. The demo went on for minutes as he blew through the basic apps and functionality he outlined previously, communicating a different, lean-back energy for the iPad that wasn’t really present with the iPhone or the Mac. The iPad was for chilling out, browsing the web, reading books, and watching videos. It was a big iPhone, but a big iPhone that was more pleasant to use.

“Using this thing is remarkable,” Jobs said while plopped on the leather chair. “It's so much more intimate than a laptop and it's so much more capable than a smartphone with this gorgeous large display.”

That feeling, that because of the size of the iPad you were actually holding a physical version of a webpage, or a book, or a document, is easy to overlook, but not to be discredited. The original iPad might have just been a pleasingly curved mix of glass and aluminum, with a 9.7-inch LCD multitouch touchscreen, prominent bezels, and no cameras. But speculation went wild when it launched because of how Apple was trying to connect its new iPad business to publishing and the media industry.

The iPad was for chilling out, browsing the web, reading books, and watching videos. It was a big iPhone, but a big iPhone that was more pleasant to use.

The iPad was supposed to reinvent books and the magazine business in portable digital form. News Corp. launched an iPad-exclusive publication called The Daily hinged on the hope that a multimedia, touch-friendly reading experience would reignite interest in the news. It didn’t, even after News Corp. launched an app for Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, but it’s a good illustration of the hopes pinned on Apple’s tablet.

The first iPad was powered by Apple’s A4 chip, the first of its kind designed in-house for even more efficient performance, and an early sign that mobile Arm-based chips would prove to be more than enough for most people’s computing needs. Apple later ported the A4 to the iPhone 4, starting a trend of custom-designed chips that made it all the way to the Mac. The fact that the original iPad ran “iPhone OS” before it was rebranded as iOS was also an indicator of how much Apple’s mobile operating system would influence future software, for good and for bad. The iPad was the first modern computer that plenty of people over the age of 50 bought and still use to this day because of how easy it was to understand. Its bigger touchscreen only made it easier to use.

The Tablet Revolution

As Jobs later revealed during an interview at the 2010 All Things D conference, Apple thought up the iPad before the iPhone, but the multitouch screen was compelling enough the company decided it could be used on a product that needed an even bigger shakeup, the cellphone. Both the iPad and iPhone fit into a lineage of PDA devices Apple used to make like the Newton and the MessagePad. But they were also responses to the popular devices of their moment. In the case of the iPhone, the Palm Treo and BlackBerry Pearl. In the case of the iPad, the trend of Windows-based tablet PCs.

Apple’s kernel of insight, that tablets should be run on mobile operating systems rather than desktop ones (even though the original iPhone OS was a descendant of Mac OS X) had repercussions across the industry. Android tablets sprung up as an alternative not long after the iPad was released, porting the Android operating system to bigger screens. Google would continue to tinker with the idea, even making a serious play for a tablet version of Android with the Honeycomb update it released in 2011, but none of it ever stuck. The biggest critical tablet success Google ever had were ones that hewed closer to smartphones in terms of screen size, like the Nexus 7. And credit to Apple’s relationship with developers at the time, there weren’t nearly as many great tablet-first apps on Android as there were on the iPad.

Microsoft settling on the beloved design of Surface Pro clearly influenced the iPad Pro...

The iPad was popular, but it wasn’t immune to the influences of the wider market. Microsoft settling on the beloved design of Surface Pro clearly influenced the iPad Pro, which was the first to officially support stylus input and a new keyboard case accessory. In 2016, Apple had put most of its eggs in the iPhone and iPad basket. New Macs came out, but they weren’t the most powerful or the best designed. Apple increasingly seemed to believe that the iPad was the entry-level computer of the future, a vision set in motion when Jobs compared personal computers to “pickup trucks,” during that same All Things D interview. Laptops like the MacBook were useful computers, but increasingly specialized in a world where you could interact with websites and apps with your fingers.

The iPad’s Changing Identity

There’s no reason the iPad should be forced to work like a laptop.


Since 2020, Apple has seemingly swung back the other way. Thanks to the improved performance and battery life the company’s M-series chip brought to the Mac, the iPad’s role as a laptop alternative isn’t nearly as important. Apple was right that the way people used computers was changing, but the phone did most of the work for them. Carrying a computer in your pocket was more impactful than carrying a tablet in your backpack or bag.

That leaves the iPad in an odd place. It’s still as fun to use as it’s ever been, but it has all of the baggage of its years as a Surface Pro competitor and laptop wannabe. It’s also increasingly a device designed to be used in landscape, when the original had no preferred orientation.

If there’s any path forward for the iPad, it’s leaning into what makes it different, rather than dragging it ever closer to the Mac. Leaning into the casual, even intimate, feeling communicated by settling into a comfortable chair and reading. Apple’s been able to redesign its professional apps like Logic and Final Cut Pro for the iPad, and made apps that returned editing to the more tactile experience they used to be. That’s the potential of a device you have to physically touch to use, and it could easily be applied to other applications and other parts of using the iPad. Anything else adds layers of complexity to an already confused product.

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