Can Apple save the iPad? (Answer: maybe)

Back on December 28, 2015, I wrote this post mulling over Apple’s iPad line-up. I ended with this:

The iPad Pro is still a bit if a mystery in how it will play out but I think its high price will keep it from breaking out and becoming a huge seller. And people considering a Surface Pro are probably still more likely to get a Surface Pro, if only to overcome the limits of iOS that the iPad Pro still has to contend with (some would argue–as I would–that Windows 10 is a better operating system for productivity than iOS 9).

Rumors are circulating that Apple will reveal its next revision of the Apple Watch at a March 2016 event–about three months away as I write this– and the event may also reveal the follow-up to the iPad Air 2. If this turns out to be accurate, it will be interesting to see what the next iPad will look like and if the delay in updating it is due to product drift and uncertainty or because Apple is poised to bring some truly new features to the iPad.

Having an iPad Air myself, I admit I wouldn’t mind the lighter Air 2 but given the differences between the two models, I can’t justify the expense of upgrading. I’m curious to see if Apple can talk me into parting with my money in 2016.

Addressing each paragraph some 15 months later:

  • analysts have suggested that the iPad Pro models comprise about 7% of total iPad sales, so my thought here seems to have panned out
  • there was no follow-up to the iPad Air 2. Instead, Apple introduced the 9.7″ iPad Pro. With a few extra features, it had a much higher selling price than the Air 2–$599 U.S. vs. $399 for the iPad Air 2. The Pro retained everything from the 12.9″ version save for coming with a slightly slower version of the A9x processor and less ram. It did improve on the 12.9″ in terms of color support and a higher-resolution camera.
  • I did get an iPad in 2016, but it was the iPad mini 4, to replace my now-dead (and officially discontinued) mini 2.

Did the iPad Air 2 replacement finally come out in March 2017? Yes…sort of.

The new iPad (yes, it’s just called iPad, the whole Air line is dead now) improves on the iPad Air 2 in two ways: it has a brighter display and a faster A9 processor. It is the same as the iPad Air 2 in most other ways, save for these:

  • it is thicker and heavier, matching the specs of the iPad Air
  • it does not have the Air 2’s laminated, non-reflective display
  • it costs $329 U.S. vs. the (now discontinued) Air 2’s price of $399

As the price of the entry-level iPad Pro 9.7″ model remains unchanged at $599, there is a now-even-larger gap in price between the two of $270.

This is not the first time Apple has introduced a product that combined old and new tech at a lower price, as they used the same tactic when they brought out the iPhone SE last year. I think they’re trying to do the same thing now, creating a good entry-level tablet that can compete with a lot of the cheaper (but not insanely cheap) Android tablets, and also act as an enticement for people with iPads dating back to the first through third generations (2010-2012) to finally upgrade.

The lower price also makes the Pro models “look” more pro. This seems to be Apple’s strategy going forward. Where once there was one iPad for all and you just chose between wifi/cellular and storage sizes, you now choose between those things as well as weighing the additional features of the Pro line–the smart connector, Pencil support, better sound and so on.

In other words, Apple has eliminated the standard iPad in favor of a low-end and high-end line, similar to how they bifurcated their laptops into MacBook and MacBook Pro, and their phones into the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus (currently).

The question is, while the strategy has worked for the laptops and phones, can it work for tablets? Remember that figure I quoted above where only about 7% of all iPad sales are for the Pro models? I don’t think that’s going to change much without price drops. Those may come in time (Apple did reduce the pricing on the 128 and 256 GB versions of the Pro) but until that happens, if it happens at all, Apple seems to be pinning hopes of reviving the iPad’s sales by switching to a model of high volume and (relatively) low pricing, an unusual strategy for the company to make with one of its flagship products.

I suspect this isn’t going to work all that well. The lower-priced iPad will definitely pique interest with some but it’s fundamentally the same thing Apple has been making for seven years, just a bit cheaper now, and the iPad Pro models remain incredibly expensive in comparison, doomed to remain niche products, especially since the extra features they offer are poorly utilized by iOS (perhaps that will change with iOS 11, but I wouldn’t count on it).

If Apple went a bit further with the pricing–say, dropping the iPad to $299, that might help goose sales, as would dropping the 9.7″ Pro down to the original iPad price of $499. In the end, it’s not just the price that holds people back from buying, though, it’s what the product offers, and for many, the iPad simply doesn’t offer enough compared to a larger phone or smaller laptop. And Apple, which has tied iOS to both the iPhone and iPad, has done little to allow the iPad to stand apart as a unique device.

A rumor suggests a 10.5″ (or so) iPad is due out this year that will sport a nearly bevel-free design and a virtualized home button. While these features are intriguing, they don’t suggest the fundamental experience of using the device would be any different (and as a likely replacement for the 9.7″ Pro model it will probably be even more expensive). Again, Apple seems content to fiddle with the hardware and to an extent, the pricing, while ignoring the software side.

If they want people to buy more iPad Pros, they have to reduce the price. It’s that simple.

If they want the iPad as a whole to bounce back in sales and thrive (as much as any tablet can nowadays), they need to do more–a lot more–on the software side.

The new iPad will snare some people hanging onto old iPads, but it’s not going to turn around the overall decline of the line. Perhaps such a task is impossible, but Apple’s multi-faceted approach to solving the problem is missing at least one essential facet.

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