Monday, March 21, 2016
To sell tablets again, Apple really needs to impress with the upcoming iPads
If the rumors are true, which they always are, Apple is about to announce a new 9.7-inch iPad. Woo boy, you’re saying—Another iPad, just like the ones that come out every year, whose sales are sinking like a horse in quicksand? Well, yes and no. Mostly yes. But a little bit no.
The new iPad, which will either be called “the smaller iPad Pro” or “the iPad Air 3,” unless Jony Ive heeds advice and calls it “the Goldilocks iPad,” will reportedly take most of its design cues from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. It’ll have the same four speakers, the same high-end performance, the same nifty magnetic accessory connector and keyboard case. It’ll have a camera flash, for those of you who like taking pictures with a massive, 9.7-inch device. It’ll even reportedly support the Apple Pencil, which will presumably look equally funny sticking out of the Lightning port while it’s charging. It’ll be the iPad Pro in every way except two: it won’t be quite so gargantuan, and it won’t be so expensive.
Apple needs this new iPad to accomplish two goals, equally important and equally difficult. The new tablet needs to help convince the world that a tablet can be a productivity device, and it needs to finally make existing iPad users line up for an upgrade. For several years, all Apple has really done is make a thin device thinner, and offer some new color options. That didn’t entice many upgraders: analytics firm Localytics found that even in November of 2015, the iPad 2—which launched in March of 2011, when iOS 4 was the hot new software—was still the most-used individual model. It’s literally a tablet as old as FaceTime. But the iPad 2 is still a really good tablet. So why would users upgrade? It’s possible that a new iPad with a stylus and a keyboard could feel like an actual improvement to the tablet they love. More importantly for Apple, it might get those users to drop another five C-notes.
It also follows a classic Apple pattern: introduce features to the highest-end model, then trickle them down to the models below. That trickle may be plugged up on Monday, though. In September, Apple announced a few new iOS features that only work on the iPad Pro. According to Jean Philippe Bouchard, the tablet research director at analysis firm IDC, we should expect that trend to continue with the new devices, as Apple tries to get people to upgrade.
Right now, Bouchard says, “there’s no reason for them to change or to upgrade, because there’s no hardware innovation, and you can always install the latest operating system on the tablet.” So in addition to the new hardware, there could be killer new software that’s only available on the latest and greatest devices. “The fact that you can run the latest iOS on your old iPads,” Bouchard points out, “it’s not good. It’s good for customers, but it’s not good for [Apple] in terms of renewals.” In other words, planned obsolescence is back, and it’s about to hit the iPad hard.
If it’s not already clear, it will be soon: the Air and Mini aren’t the future of the iPad. They really have no future at all. Everything’s coming up Pro.
“Pure slates—just the screen—are a contracting market that isn’t doing well,” says Bouchard. The researcher is bullish on so-called detachables, though; devices like the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro that can approximate both laptop and tablet functionality. Sales in these devices grew 110 percent last year, he says, and should grow another 75 percent this year. Months after its release, the iPad Pro’s adoption has been solid, Bouchard says: “There’s a real demand for productivity-focused, computing devices.” Laptops and tablets are both dying much-publicized deaths, and the one device that can replace both is rising from their ashes.
The rest of the industry seems to agree, and has turned from just-a-screen tablets to more modular kinds of detachable devices. Apple, for its part, is seriously bullish. When he unveiled the iPad Pro, Tim Cook himself called it “the clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing.” It’s not just Cook, either. Even as tablet sales wane, everyone from Microsoft to Intel to Huawei to Google are betting that there’s life left in these big handheld screens.
The possibility of a combo-device future presents a new problem for Apple, though. Even months after the Pro’s announcement, there are still too many iPad apps that don’t support keyboard shortcuts or support input from the Apple Pencil. They’re not adopting iOS’s new picture-in-picture mode, or taking advantage of all the ways users can multitask on the giant screen. Some developers aren’t even building the pro-grade apps the platform needs to take off. Why would they? The iPad Pro is always going to be a niche device; the most popular iPads by far are the Air and Mini. Apple’s trying to flip that, to turn the Mini into the device a few people want and the Pro(s) into the mainstream model. It’s the same as with the likely new smaller iPhone: the big, expensive one is the one you want, but if you must, there’s this lesser one over here.
Apple’s morphing of the iPad into a more straightforwardly productive and professional device is either a prescient move a few steps ahead of everyone else, or it’s a desperate attempt to find something, anything that will make the smartphone generation long for larger screens again. The same, by the way, could be said about everything iPad. The new iPad Pro is either going to be the device you never realized you needed, or the one Apple’s about to realize you don’t.