Reading the Tea Leaves: iPad Fall 2011 Edition

18Jul11

In my circle of friends and family, I am known as having, shall we say: “an above average” level of knowledge when it comes to all things Apple. So it came as little surprise to me when a very good friend of mine dropped me an e-mail which simply said: “What do we expect for an iPad announcement in Sept?”

Until very recently, my knee-jerk, gut, base-level instinct told me “nothing”. One of the reasons Apple has been so successful is they have been very conservative when it comes to their product line. As many of my Apple-hating friends have told me over the years, other vendors offer tons more models with tons more configuration options, featuring gidgets, widgets, doo-dads, and other assorted odds-and-ends that, for the average consumer, do little other then fill out a spec sheet. This compares to Apples very limited selection of products, keeping the SKU list short, simple, and easy to understand.

These same friends also like to tell me how their favorite hardware vendor of choice are in a near perpetual state of releasing something. This compares to Apple’s long product lives and somewhat predictable refresh cycles. I believe this is better for the consumer in the long run, and produces more predictable targets for developers.

This has been especially true for Apple’s non-computer product lines. The iPod line has been refreshed in the fall nearly every year since its introduction, with very few updates to the line outside that time period. The iPhone, until this year, was refreshed every summer, and the iPad saw its first refresh around its one year anniversary.

There was no reason to expect anything different. And then out of the blue John Gruber, well-known Apple pundit behind the highly respected Daring Fireball website, stepped into the land of speculation and outlined a scenario which would have Apple release not one, but two iPads in 2011: one in the spring, and one in the fall. Since he has proven that he is well connected, this created a flurry of rumors, all of which could be traced back to Mr. Gruber’s article. He has since stressed many times that this article was not based on any inside knowledge, and was a pure speculative piece. I don’t recall if it was the same article, or one around that time period, where Mr. Gruber also speculated Apple may change the iPhone release to the fall, as the iPod (and the PMP market in general) was loosing its luster.

So the rumors, for the most part, died down for a while. One would pop up here or there, attributed to some mysterious so-and-so, but nothing I ever took seriously.

Then Apple did not announce an iPhone at their WWDC event. In fact, we’re half-way through summer and there’s no indication that an iPhone will be announced any time soon (though there are, of course, rumors to that effect). Since then, the iPad rumors have heated up.

But is there any truth to this newest batch of rumors? I’ve got no inside knowledge. Sure I follow a couple Apple employees on Twitter, but I don’t know any of them. All I’ve got is what I’ve learned by following Apple news and rumors over the years, and my own analytical abilities (for whatever those are worth). So I ask myself a few questions.

Does Apple need a new iPad this fall? Even the most die-hard anti-Apple observer has to admit Apple basically owns the tablet market at this time. The iPad 2 was released several months ago, and has since been flying off the shelves faster then Apple can make them. The competition is floundering, trying desperately to build something consumers will buy, but seldom answering the question “why buy this instead of an iPad?” in a way that bakes sense to the average consumer. Consumers have shown with their hard-earned cash that they are not really that interested in little-used hardware features, flash, slightly lower price, and “openness”. What’s more, there’s little I see on the horizon to change this.

Should Apple do a new iPad this fall? I do not think a refresh of the current product is in order, and most the rumors out there agree with me. In fact, the most common thread is we’re going to see a new high-end model, an iPad Pro if you will, which will be basically the same model with slightly faster CPU, slightly more RAM, and a “Retina Display”. Such a thing would have to be labeled “Pro”, as a screen that size with 280+ DPI is going to cost a small fortune. Carefully targeting a different segment of the market like this is very Apple-like, and would put further pressure on its competitors. But is there a market for such a device? I don’t see one, but I’m not a market analyst.

Is fall the right time to do this? That’s a tough one. Apple is a master at keeping itself in the news, and the release of a new iPhone in August/September will go a long way towards that goal for the rest of the year, so I don’t think they need a new iPad for that. The Android, WebOS, and RIM tablets are still trying to catch-up in mindshare for the bigger consumer market, I don’t see any makers of those tablets aiming higher at this time. That leaves the wild-card of Windows tablets.

Microsoft has stressed that Windows 8 will be its desktop and tablet OS. In fact, they have said that they don’t see those as necessarily different product categories, a stance which is about as different from Apple’s as one can get. Such a strategy also puts Windows-based tablets into a higher market then the iPad is in. I believe the industry expects to see Windows 8 tablets early next year. An iPad Pro released in the fall could take some, or even all, of the wind out of Microsofts tablet efforts.

So I come back to the question: “What do we expect for an iPad announcement in Sept?” At this time, I’m going to stick with “nothing”, mostly because I don’t think Apple needs a new tablet going into the Christmas season. IF we do see an announcement, I would expect it to be this iPad (2) Pro, not an iPad 3, which would be an evolution of the product line featuring an A6 CPU. This would sit at a much higher price point, starting around at least $700 due to the cost of the screen.

It should be noted, however, that I’ve been wrong before. Once or twice.

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