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From iSlate to iPad: 10 years of tablet travel

January 21, 2020
Glenville Morris
Glenville Morris

At 00:00:01 on 1 January we entered not just a brand new year, but a whole new decade. Major milestones like this always make us feel a bit retrospective here at Travelport towers, but add into the mix the fact that the iPad is going to be 10 years old next week* and we’re suddenly feeling more retro than a Motorola Zoom!

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So as part of our short #TravelTrends2020 series where we look back at ALL the hits (and a few misses if we’re honest) of our Travel Trends predictions in the last decade we’ve decided to look over our shoulder at travel apps on the iPad in the last 10 years too. And the first question to ask is… what the hell happened?

Watch out mobile, tablets are coming for you next!

Disclaimer first: I’m not too proud to admit that maybe ‘some’ of the hyperbole that I wrote 6 years ago like this “watch out mobile, tablets are coming” subtitle and lines like “2014 really is the year of the tablet” might look very slightly off the mark now with the benefit of hindsight. But heck I was young(ish) and 2014 really was peak iPad, both in terms of sales and also, the sheer volume of travel brands that were awash in the App Store when you selected ‘iPad apps only’. And I’m not talking about the old X2 magnification that you used to be able to press on an iPhone app that you’d downloaded to your iPad which just blew up the mobile app into a large grainy mess, we’re talking about proper native, iPad only apps. Now obviously, early trailblazers like Lufthansa rushed to be on the ‘big iPhone’ years earlier with their iPad only mix of inspiration, destination guide and bizarrely ‘check-in’ (I’m still scarred remembering people turning up to Luton airport with their boarding pass on their iPad) but they were on their own on the platform for years. By the fourth anniversary of the iPad though you literally couldn’t move for airlines, OTAs and hotel brands all jostling for space on this new form factor. Remember Accor’s ‘Away on Business’ hotel app with the folding map UI? Do you still drool at the memory of Emirates’ digital strategy going rogue which saw them releasing an iPad app before they even had mobile apps? Do you, like me often dream of the days that you’d use the ‘glass bottomed jet’ functionality on the Fly Delta iPad app and your mind being blown that you could see you were flying over John’s house!

Delta Glass Bottom Jet iPad App

Even easyJet, the undisputed kings of mobile (fact: Best airline app in the world - copyright Aviation Festival 2019) dabbled on the App Store in 2014 with a standalone iPad app called Inspire Me.

Tablet map

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Well distant memories like that are the only things we have left now because all those apps – and most of the travel ones that followed between 2015 – 2018 have disappeared from the Apple tablet in the last decade.

So, what really happened?

Unlike the death of Kodak (digital cameras, phones) or Blockbuster (Netflix) it wasn’t one single event, shift in the market, or a rival company that killed the native iPad app, it was a gang murder with a few ringleaders.

Sales Decline

Dwindling sales were the first nail in the coffin. I’m not just talking about the iPad itself but rather sales from the iPad apps. Whereas once years before, airlines like Delta had stood up and lauded the revenue coming from their tablet apps, by 2017 they were pulling them from the App Store bemoaning ‘diminishing returns from a tablet specific interface’.

Tablet first UI on the web

Ironically, it was that tablet-specific interface that lead to the demise of tablets. iPads like big, thumb friendly buttons, dropdowns and simple big block imagery style UI that has dominated much of responsive website design for airlines over the past 5 years. Airlines suddenly realised they didn’t need iPad apps, they just needed a website that looked like an iPad app. JetBlue, American Airlines, Icelandair we’re looking at you!

Universal Apps

Apple themselves delivered the next death blow with Adaptive Layout and Universal Apps. As brands looked to reduce costs and ship features more quickly across all platforms this new development method enabled them to release one ‘mobile’ app that was ‘compatible with iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch’. Fast forward to 2020 and now only one app in the UK Top 10 free iPad apps for travel is a true iPad only app - British Airways for iPad. And even that has only been updated 10 times in 3 years, mostly with bug fixes. Note: This author only uses it for checking what the IFE schedule is for an upcoming flight, other than I use it less than the iOS Stocks app! i.e. never

Add in further blows from the industry like Google giving up on Android tablets, Phablets (remember them?!) driving phone sizes up so large that no one used the term phablet anymore, and you can see why we’re sitting here in 2020 lamenting the death of the once great travel tablet app. Plus, once travel brands started making backend management iPad apps for hotel staff or airlines used them for flight manuals instead of paper you knew, the end was near.

The Next 10?

Just like we’ll never see the year 2019 again I don’t think we’ll ever see a great travel iPad app again but there are glimmers of hope…

1. Great travel app experiences still exist on the iPad - AirBnb, Singapore Airlines, Marriot Bonvoy and TUI are all brilliant apps, even though they are just supersized mobile ones.

2. iPad OS may just be a branch of iOS at the moment but over the next decade it will become more distinct from its mobile cousin bringing with it new functionality that just won’t work/fit on a phone.

3. Inflight (outside of simply controlling IFE) is still the biggest gap in the trip/journey experience that mobile hasn’t solved in the last 10 years, so maybe tablets will step up again?

4. Finally, last year Apple announced that the iPad saw its strongest growth in 6 years (see, I told you 2014 was a golden year!) proving there is life in the old tablet dog yet.

With those positive thoughts ringing in our ears as we began a brand-new decade, we should all raise a toast on the 27th January and celebrate 10 years of the iPad – whilst muttering under our breath “we miss you iPad travel apps, sob”

* Apple fanboys. We know the iPad was announced 10 years ago on January 27th but didn’t officially get released until April 3rd 2010. Before you write in!


This article was first published by Phocuswire.