The iPad Pro

Shortly after Apple’s keynote earlier this week, Zac Hall made an interesting and thought-provoking quip on Twitter:

Mac mini, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro.

iPad mini, iPad Air, iPad ___.

Fill in the blank.

Later, as I scrolled through my RSS reader catching up on pre- and post-event news, I came across another interesting observationn along the same lines, this time from The Verge’s David Pierce:

“Where we’re perhaps most confused about the [iPad] Air is its naming. There was a palpable tension in the room in San Francisco when the name change was revealed, as if an iPad Pro were imminent — and though Tim Cook and others spent time bashing the strategies of Microsoft and Apple’s other competitors, it seems like a natural progression from the current lineup. Also confusing is the fact that the iPad 2 remains on sale for $399, despite woefully outdated hardware. Apple’s known for knocking $100 off the price of its current model as it introduces the next one, but it changed the strategy significantly here. And when the 7.9-inch iPad mini comes with incredibly similar internals for $100 less, how does Apple differentiate its two products other than simply screen size?”

Set aside Apple’s perpetuation of the iPad 2 for a moment, for a will discuss that topic in a future article, and instead focus on the idea of an iPad Pro. As soon as Phil Schiller revealed the iPad1 Air, my mind immediately made the logical jump to an impending iPad Pro. It only made sense, after all, that Apple would address two very different use-cases with its tablets in the same manner it did by offering both a MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. Even thousands of miles away, I felt the same tension David described above as I waited for Phil Schiller to expand the iPad line. Alas, it was not to be: he moved on first to the iPad Mini, then handed the stage back to Tim Cook who closed the event. Apple had no iPad Pro to unveil, nothing to fill the gaping hole it had just dug in its tablet line.

Leading up to the event many suspected — and I hoped — that Apple would release an iPad 5 featuring both Touch ID and a new A7X processor2. Some also speculated that Apple would release a larger iPad, but few placed much stock in those rumors. Apple had no need for such a device, after all; its portfolio left as much room in the iPad line for a larger version as the MacBook line left for a 17“ laptop. Eager for the considerable performance boost an A7X would provide over the 3’s A5X, I even considered purchasing a new iPad in addition to my preexisting plan to buy an updated MacBook Pro. More than simply an additional excuse to blow $599 though, I hoped Apple would also use this opportunity to reaffirm the iPad 5’s position above its smaller sibling by virtue of superior components. Especially given all the hype surrounding the iPad Mini, some part of me hoped to see Apple’s full-size tablet regain its rightful position atop the value pyramid. Unfortunately, Apple had other plans: instead of solidifying the iPad 5 as its premiere tablet offering, it shipped both the Mini and a new, rebranded version of its 9.7” iPad, the iPad Air, with almost indistinguishable components. Identical except for form factor and price, Apple removed any other traits that could have served as differentiating factors between the two devices.

Whereas retaining the iPad 4’s screen resolution made sense, as did moving to retina in the Mini, Apple’s refusal to differentiate its tablets by processing power confused me. Although I went in to the event with nothing more than unsubstantiated hope for the future of Apple’s iPad, if pressed I would have hedged my bets in predicting that Apple adopt a similar strategy with regards to its tablets as governs its laptop line. Just as consumers hire MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros to do very different jobs, so, too, did I think Apple would position its Mini and full-size iPads: the Mini as an ultra-portable device trading raw power for portability and extreme battery life, and the iPad 5 as a slightly larger, more powerful tablet geared towards creators necessitating greater horsepower in such a form factor. Shipping the Mini with an A7 processor and retina display, however, and the new iPad Air with near-identical technical specifications, flew directly in the face of that idea. Given Apple’s impressive track record of using its full-size iPad to push the boundaries of what it could feasibly offer consumers in such a device3, this move took me by surprise. Rather than indicative of a shift in focus from the 9.7“ iPad to its lauded 7.9” counterpart though, Apple’s decision not to continue pushing those boundaries instead served to create an opening for an iPad Pro and indicate the direction Apple plans to take such a device in the future.

In a race you can either work extremely hard to gradually move forward, or slam on the brakes until everyone has nearly lapped you before speeding up again. Either way you will have secured a spot in front, even if dishonorably in the latter case. Apple had a similar choice to make when setting a timeline for the iPad Pro’s internals. By unveiling new A6 and A6X SoCs in such close proximity last year, Apple started what many considered the beginning of a trend by which new An and AnX chips shipped alongside the latest iPhones and iPads, respectively, in a strict yearly cycle rather than alternating each year as had previously gave rise to its A5 in March of 2011 and then A5X chipsets twelve months later. Although based on only one data point, the Mini’s debut with a second-generation A5 indicated that it would operate on the same cycle as the iPhones, thus spreading Apple’s two chips between three devices4. In order to both increase performance throughout its existing roster year over year and simultaneously facilitate the advent of a pro-level tablet presumably in possession of greater processing power than Apple’s other, similar offerings, Tim Cook had no choice but to expand the number of available chipsets. Far easier said than done, Apple had two ways of accomplishing this: either by drastically pushing its development schedule forward, thereby enabling them to unveil the A7, A7X, A8, and A8X all at once, or by holding the latest generation of its current chipset from use; both would have the end result of increasing the number of chipsets available for a future release featuring the iPad Pro. Rather than the former, which would have proved much more difficult to accomplish, Apple instead opted for the latter course of action; next fall, alongside the A8 and A8X history tells us to expect, Apple will also have an unreleased A7X to utilize in some fashion. If I had to guess, I would say the Mini will ship with the A7X, the Air with the A8, and the Pro with the A8X.

There are, certainly, some problems with this strategy, perhaps most obvious of which could prove the perception of Apple’s Mini as recipient of outdated components. Although still an upgrade from its current A7, Apple shipping the Mini with an A7X next fall when the Air comes standard with an A8 and the iPad Pro with a new A8X could adversely effect sales if consumers do not take kindly to this shift. Especially given recent positioning of the Mini and Air as equal implied by their employment of similar chipsets due to almost identical hardware requirements, turning around and giving the Air a superior SoC next year could send a confusing message. Assuming Apple only released its Air equipped with the traditionally iPhone-bound An series to stay its hand in preparation for an iPad Pro launch though, confusing message or not Apple will have no problem spinning the Air’s jump from A7 to A8 as unequivocally positive.

Regardless of which system-on-a-chip Apple unveils the next generation of iPads with though, its move to employ the An family in a line traditionally necessitating high-performance AnX variants caught me by surprise. With the A7, Apple showed a huge vote of confidence in considering the chip capable of powering not only its iPhones, but its iPad line as well. Given that the A7 could drive both iPad Minis and Airs though, I have to wonder why Apple did not ship an iPad Pro sporting the A7X. If history tells us anything Apple had already created the chip, so why not put it to good use in the upcoming holiday buying season? Unfortunately, I have no good answer.

If Apple wanted to differentiate its tablets on more than processing speed and, potentially, form factor in producing a physically larger iPad Pro through the inclusion Touch ID, for example, supply constraints could have played a major role in keeping a pro-level offering from market. Some have attributed a lack of Touch ID in the Mini and Air models to such a cause, which I consider plausible. However, I find Touch ID functioning as a feature with which to segment Apple’s tablets unlikely: although tempting, I have a hard time believing Apple would predicate a device’s security on price tier. When Touch ID finally does make it to the iPads, it will come to every model.

Sadly, unless Apple holds a very special event sometime in the very near future, we will have no choice but to wait a whole year for an iPad Pro or even Touch ID integration, for that matter. WWDC 2014 could hold some clues, but neither creating a new product segment or incorporating Touch ID qualify as minor, incremental updates we will likely to see before a dedicated iPad event next October in 2014.

 “The iPad”? Just “iPad”? I only noticed this after going back to re-watch Phil Schiller announce the iPad Air: none of Apple’s executives place an article before their tablets, nor do any of their marketing materials. Perhaps this, like Apple’s insistence on a lowercase “S” despite functioning as an initialism, is another curious stylistic choice Apple made for obscure marketing reasons.

 Interestingly, M7 integration went largely unreported. Either deemed a given or of too little importance with all the other devices and upgrades rumored to take place at the event, I cannot recall a single article spending any time discussing the M7 in any capacity, or what Apple might use it for in the larger iPads.

 For proof of this one need only look to the transition from iPad 2 to 3 where Apple began shipping its tablet with a retina display: although the iPad 3 brought with it increased computing power as had become traditional with each successive iPad generation, the move to retina effectively canceled out any performance advantages between the second and third generation given that the device now needed to drive four times as many pixels as its predecessor.

Although a very impressive technical feat, I have a hard time believing Steve Jobs was happy with this turn of events. Given the choice, I suspect he would have opted to ship the iPad 3 with the A6X — not to reach the market until six months later — rather than the A5X in order to achieve both retina resolution and increase device performance in a single move. However, given that this was the fist time Apple had two new processors available simultaneously — previously Apple’s processors released on a yearly cycle, whereas both the second-generation A5 and the A5X both shipped on the same day — such a feat proved technically unfeasible, and so Jobs accepted the trade-off as a necessary evil.

 Incidentally, the Mini’s update to an A7 rather than A6X or A7X supports this theory. Complicating the issue, however, is the Air’s shipment with the A7 rather than the A7X, proving once again that no rule is set in stone.