Thoughts on the iPad Lineup, Part 3
I got thinking more about yesterday’s launch of the 9.7” iPad Pro, and how some things about the 12.9” iPad Pro now don’t make much sense. Like how it can edit 3 simultaneous 4K streams, but can’t record them. Or that it doesn’t have a DCI-P3 gamut or true-tone display, despite clearly being the most display-oriented iPad. Or even that its LTE modem is last-gen. This is stuff that a smaller, non-flagship iPad Pro shouldn’t have a leg up with, and the leapfrogging is likely off-putting to discerning Pro customers.
Sorting out the iPad Pros history
The feature disparity of the 9.7” and 12.9” iPad Pros isn’t the optimal articulation of the marketing strategy and shows how much the 12.9” was an in-between launch. These last-gen features make sense only in the context of an original launch target of early 2015, using an A8X chip (version 1 launches have a bit more latitude in precise timing). When delays became apparent and targets weren’t able to be met, it was pushed back and re-envisioned with a fast-tracked A9X, but froze the rest of its features to just get it out the door.
Had the A8X iPad Pro launched last March, the marketing would have probably been that it edits several 1080p streams / one 4K stream. Cool, but not that amazing given it would have the same A8X as the recently launched iPad Air 2. Everyone would be more excited about the display and Pencil, and it’d be a relatively low volume first-gen launch geared at graphics/drawing and Office use. Its highly unlikely the Air 2 would have been delayed til March and rechristened as a 9.7” iPad Pro, because that relies on a lot of forewarning of iPad Pro delays to make the call in time for the Air 2 to gear up for an October launch, and a change in the Air 2 display to support the Pencil.
Why March is iPad Pro Season
Working back from the initial delay, just because the 12.9” iPad Pro launched around October doesn’t mean it is destined for an October refresh cadence. Its not wonderful to see 18 months pass with so many last-gen components on the flagship, but it’d be a onetime realignment. Plus, as Apple fans are well aware, first-gen Apple products always have some teething problems in the market.
A major benefit to launching in March is reducing cost and risk of components, which iPhones generally have first dibs on. Remember that although the 12.9” iPad Pro was announced in September, it actually launched in November. The cause of the delay (component availability) may be a routine enough risk to just try to avoid altogether.
There’s also more feature divergence these days between iPhone and iPad. For instance, its hard to imagine the iPhone gets Pencil support, and at the iPads size, 3D touch is just tough to execute. I expect future features to follow suit. Due to the massive 12.9” iPad Pro, the AX in particular is going to remain a considerably beefier chip with more features than the A-series (e.g. we already see the A9X is 50% larger than the A9, whereas previous iPad chips were either iPhone chips or in the 25% range). Feature alignment suggests similar launch timeframes (less work), whereas feature divergence suggests the need for more spacing.
Its All About the Team
Feature divergence is tightly coupled with stress on the team. A launch nearly simultaneous to the iPhone piles on a lot of work for the intermingling iPhone/iPad/iOS teams all around the same time of year (launching general market iPads then using last-gen tech is much easier). Similarly, developing the AX-series chips may be plain old hard to do in lockstep with the the A-series — the chip team only has so much bandwidth. Staggering chip design and production makes a lot of sense, as does handing it off to a secondary AX-focused team to take it to launch. I believe Apple already does something similar, working on two generations of A-series chips at the same time, using different teams focused on different parts of the design & production cycle.
Historically, although the A8X was launched in October, it was on an iPad still marketed to general consumers and prior to the iPad Pro split. Frankly the iPad Air 2 revealed the main weakness of the ‘one iPad’ phase - overpowered and overpriced for the general market, not Pro enough for the Pros. Meanwhile we know the A9X was rushed to meet that time, strongly suggesting the above change in approach is already set in motion.
I’m quite convinced now that we won’t see the next 12.9” iPad Pro until March 2017. The iPad’s maturity and long upgrade cycles mean expectations are reduced for groundbreaking features year over year. Pros are not a stocking stuffer for the holiday sales cycle. Feature divergence means less consumer pining for iPhone’s latest and greatest launched in September, and greater team stress. And a March launch aligns the launch with the 9.7” Pro.
If indeed the 12.9” iPad Pro moves to a March cadence, the Apple calendar should look roughly like this:
- iPad Pro = March
- Mac = June (dependent on Intel, grumble grumble)
- iPhone = September
- iPad = October
Pretty simple, isn’t it?