Thoughts on the iPad Lineup, Part 1

Updated after the announcement, with update notes inline. See also Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Tomorrow morning Apple will announce a new 9.7” iPad, called the iPad Pro. I think this represents a smart re-think of the iPad lineup at Apple, one that will affect how the iPad lineup is built & marketed.

The introduction of a 9.7” iPad Pro doesn’t mean the regular 9.7” iPad is going away. It’s an ideal size, and the iPad is first and foremost aimed at general purpose computing. We’ll find out soon whether a regular iPad will be launched alongside the Pro tomorrow, but whenever that happens I think we’ll see a simpler, more predictable approach taken to the iPad lineup that’s a significant departure from what we’ve seen in iPad’s first 6 years.

There’s No More Reason for ‘iPad Air’

To start, I have a strong hunch that the ‘Air’ moniker will be dropped now that the iPad Pro lineup is here, and that future iPads will just be ‘iPad’. They’ve already phased the ‘Air’ moniker out with the Macbook, and Apple is all about alignment when it comes to branding and experience. ‘Air’ was used to distinguish a major chassis downsizing from previous plastic Macbook and full bezeled iPad lines, and on the transition back to Macbook, there was again a redesign. On the iPad though, in 6 years we’ve seen it get thinner and lose side bezels, but its fundamentally the same slab design. That’s okay, that’s the best articulation of its concept. I’m not sure the transition back to ‘iPad’ would even involve much redesign, given the conservative design of the iPad and the pure physical limits of making it much smaller.

Along with ‘Air’, Apple should ditch numbering iPads. Segmenting iPad into regular and Pro lines relieves some pressure from needing to number each release. Numbers serve to emphasize significant product differences from release to release, meanwhile iPads are getting pretty mature as a segment, and will soon bump into the diminishing returns of the PC/Mac market. Performance for general purpose tasks is now great, and making it thinner is getting much harder.

Branding iPads can instead be like Macs, with the purchase experience being ‘the new one’ and ‘the old one’, more subtly distinguished by launch year. This also avoids naming conflict with past numbered iPads.

The new market reality is that the more die-hard Apple fans and professionals who rely on iPad will gravitate to the Pro line and will be more aware of the latest and greatest changes, whereas the general market will be satisfied with the simple, no-risk ’get an iPad’ message. We see as much on the Mac, and we’ve learned over the past 6 years that the iPad is much more like the Mac than the iPhone. The iPhone’s year-over-year differences really do drive sales, and it’s form factor is always evolving in accordance with trends. But the iPad isn’t that way, and shouldn’t be marketed that way. The numbers no longer make sense.

Next Phase of iPad

If we were to break the history of iPad into distinct phases, we’re clearly at a transition point. Phase 1 of the iPad vision seems complete — a device that can replace (and is sometimes better than) a Mac for general computing tasks, and that sheds a lot of the legacy baggage of traditional computers. Meanwhile, with the Pro lineup and iOS’ increasing power user capabilities, Phase 2 is just starting. A single model iPad can no longer bridge the demands of both the general market and the market of users who wish for more powerful, PC-like experiences. Since Apple sees the future of computing in iPad, segmentation is necessary, and we saw that first with November’s 12.9" iPad Pro.

The iPad has historically been a problematic one when it comes to estimating sales and upgrade cycles, with sales sliding the past two years. Apple has spent the last 6 years making sense of this new category and figuring out how to build toward their long term vision of iPad, while fending off fast followers. They’ve experimented with and had challenges understanding when and how frequently to launch, how close to hew to the iPhone, and how to help the market understand what the latest iPads are capable of. Further, there have been hiccups along the way. Most recently the 12.9" iPad Pro had production delays due to part availability, so things haven’t always gone according to plan. All in all, phase 1 was about figuring this stuff out, and phase 2 will be about locking it down.

New Launch Cadence

As we all know the iPhone is the pacesetter in the Apple lineup, delivering yearly updates to the A-series system-on-a-chip, iOS, and new features. The iPad has always been downstream from the iPhone, inheriting the latest A-series chip months after its release on iPhone, and sometimes upgrading it with an AX-series spin on it. The question is whether we’ll see iPad follow suit with a yearly release cycle, or stick to some other cadence like with the now 18-month old iPad Air 2.

Any release cadence is going to have a lot to do with syncing with the iPhone launch cadence and availability of parts, specifically the A-series chip. Demand for the iPhone is huge in the first quarter, and there’s always limited availability. Thus, anytime a new iPad uses the latest chip, it’s going to need to be spaced out enough to derisk supply constraints. In addition, chips created early in the production cycle are expensive. So are the beefier AX-series chips such as the A9X in the 12.9” iPad Pro.

My hunch (probably to be promptly refuted in 10 hours) is that Apple follows a yearly launch cadence in one of two ways:

Option 1) March launch of both 9.7” iPad and iPad Pro, and October 12.9” iPad Pro

We’re already 2 out of 3 with this option, and March is a good time to launch consumer iPads (of which the 9.7” iPad Pro could be considered part of). Old stock is cleared out during the holidays. Production of chips has sufficiently ramped from the September iPhone release to be low risk enough to include in iPads. Plus there’s the ancillary benefit of the education purchase cycle and the lead time that it needs for the Aug/Sept school year. The lower production, higher margin 12.9” iPad Pro can launch with an AX chip in October and other new features when they’re costlier to launch, and the lower margin 9.7” iPad Pro in March can get those for cheaper due to production ramp up. Finally, the regular iPad would stick with the cheaper A-series chip from the iPhone.

Option 2) March launch of both 9.7” and 12.9” iPad Pro, and October 9.7” iPad

In this option, the regular iPad would launch with a year-old chip (e.g. the A9 this October), which would boost holiday awareness and margins, though also be a bit disappointing. Those most disappointed though would be the iPad Pro set anyway, so maybe that’s palatable. The one odd bit here is that 2 years would have elapsed between the iPad Air 2 and its successor. Longer times between updates add uncertainty to purchasing, lengthen the time legacy platforms must be supported, and lower the velocity of feature improvements propagating through the ecosystem. This seems unwise, so maybe it’d be a one-time delay.

UPDATE post-announcement: Option 2 is now what I believe.

What a New iPad Tomorrow Could Look Like

If Apple introduces a new iPad tomorrow alongside the iPad Pro, I imagine it’d be only slightly differentiated from the iPad Air 2, likely just processor and weight. The A9 would be a good upgrade, cutting cost & significant power consumption relative to the Air 2’s A8X, while also offering a decent performance increase. That efficiency would allow for a significant decrease in battery size (as a 10hr battery life has remained a fixed target for the device category), which would make for a lighter chassis. Everything else (including 2-speaker configuration) would probably remain the same, except maybe the gen 2 touch ID.

Cost-wise, the A9 and the smaller battery would increase margins, and allow for some deeper discounting in enterprise and education environments. The latter coincides well with the upcoming iOS 9.3 features related to education device management at a time when purchasing decisions for the next school year are beginning, and it’d offer some semblance of competition with Chromebooks, which dominate the education market (90%+ market share). This is my hope, as I’m in education technology and I’ve been underwhelmed by Apple’s approach to schools thus far. iPads have to get cheaper and device management better, or the market is lost.

What About the iPad Mini?

Frankly, the Mini is the stepchild of the iPad family. It’s targeting the remainder of the market who have a strong form factor preference and cost preference — just like the upcoming iPhone SE. Similarly it may have a feature delete or two. Size-wise its position in the market is squeezed by iPads and iPhone Plus, and it’s sales are quite low. It’ll co-exist, but it won’t be on the same cadence or technology frontier as iPad or iPad Pro, which has been the case for a while now. I don’t think it justifies renaming it ‘iPad’ and differentiating by size, as is the case with the 9.7” and 12.9” Pro line, but that’s mainly because it’d be confusing to have two iPads of the same generation called ‘iPad’ running different underlying tech. The only way this would be okay I think is if ‘iPad’ launched in October with year-old tech as well.

UPDATE post-announcement: it’s now a lot likelier that Mini is collapsed into ‘iPad’ and run on the same cadence, given both the iPad Air 2 and Mini are long in the tooth and October is the most likely time to refresh them.

The New Lineup

In summary, here’s where I think the new iPad lineup is going:

iPad Pro = more functionality & speed, AX-series chip, targeting the typical creative / high-performance set. Likely slightly heavier/thicker. Launched each year in March (9.7") and October (12.9").

iPad = decent speed, A-series chip, as thin/light as reasonable, targeting general purpose / enterprise / education. Launched each year in March.

Mini = cheaper, smaller iPad launched later, targeting the remainder who have a strong form factor preference. Launched each year in October, or whenever really.

Conclusion

This speculation is not without the benefit of many rumors pretty much confirming the 9.7” iPad Pro is being announced tomorrow. However I haven’t seen anyone speculating much on a non-Pro iPad, much less one just called ‘iPad’. Based purely on speculation about Apple’s production constraints and how they think about the iPad market, if I were Apple, this is how I’d think about the iPad line, and I would launch an A9-powered ‘iPad’ tomorrow.


UPDATE: I’ve written Part 2 as a follow-up after the announcement, covering Features, SKUs, and Price of the possible rework of the general market ‘iPad’, Part 3 covering the divergence of 9.7" and 12.9" iPad Pro features, and Part 4 covering similarity of user experience and alignment with Macbook Pro. Today’s announcements did not include a rebranded ‘iPad’, strongly suggesting the replacement to the iPad Air 2 will launch in October, alongside a refreshed (and possibly rebranded) Mini.