Oct 21, 2014 · 3 minutes

The iPad isn't selling as well as it used to. Apple reported yesterday that it sold 12.3 million of the devices during the last quarter; that's down from 14.1 million units in the same quarter last year. The company actually sold more Macs than iPads last quarter -- something few would have thought possible a few years ago, when many believed tablets would eventually replace traditional PCs.

All kinds of things could explain the sales slump. Maybe people aren't as fond of tablets as they used to be. Perhaps consumers were holding out for the new devices Apple announced earlier this month. Or maybe the iPad's early success was a fluke that Apple won't be able to repeat. If anyone knew what really caused the slump I suspect Apple would have taken steps to reverse it.

It doesn't really matter that iPad sales have slowed, though. I mean, sure, it matters to Apple and all the other companies whose tablet sales have dropped in the last year. But it doesn't matter to consumers, because the future still belongs to tablets, even if they don't look like the devices that Apple has been releasing every few quarters like clockwork since January 2010.

There's little difference between tablets and the two products -- smartphones and PCs -- that surround them. Apple's iPhone 6 Plus has been described my some as an "iPad mini mini," and the Verge notes in its review of the device that it could take the place of the actual iPad mini for many consumers. At the same time, Microsoft introduced the latest version of its Surface tablet, which it's desperately trying to position as a device that can replace a more traditional laptop.

It's only a matter of time before Apple releases a "laptop" that looks more like a tablet with a keyboard attached than any of the MacBooks the company has released in recent years. It will have a touchscreen, it will be thinner than the MacBook Air, and it will probably boast a feature that allows its owner to rip its screen away to use it like an ordinary tablet. It might be a few years before that happens, but eventually there will be little difference between the two product categories, and we're all going to be just a little bit happier because of that shift.

In the meantime, I suspect that iPhones will only continue to get larger, until there really is little point in owning both an iPhone and an iPad. Despite protestations from people with small hands -- or without pockets large enough to hold such monstrous devices -- the industry is trending towards so-called "phablets" that blur the lines between smartphones and tablets.

The iPad is going to make those changes possible. It allows Apple to experiment with devices that get thinner even as they become more powerful; that boast gorgeous displays and long battery lives; and that allow it to work on a device that can finally bridge iPads and Macs without having to alienate either of its core markets. (The original iPad was dismissed as a large iPod Touch -- can you imagine what pundits will say about some kind of iPad-Mac hybrid device?)

So the iPad might eventually disappear, either because it was consumed by both the iPhone and the Mac, or because consumers stopped buying the products often enough for Apple to continue making them. But the idea behind it -- that people want to read, play, and work with "large" touchscreen devices -- is going to live on no matter what happens. It's just a matter of perspective.

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]