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iPad Pro and the future of the iPad

Andy Vandervell

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iPad Pro and the future of the iPad

OPINION With the iPad mini with Retina display (aka iPad mini 2) finally going on sale this week, now seems as good a time as any to think about the future of the iPad. Like it or lump it, the iPad remains a torchbearer for tablets in a way the iPhone no longer is for phones. Cheap Android tablets like the Nexus 7 have eaten into its market share, but Apple remains dominant both in revenues and mind share.

And this is a problem because the current iPad line-up feels like it has reached a evolutional precipice. The iPad mini, introduced last year, neatly tidied up a blindspot in the line-up, while this year's iPad Air has done all it could to refine the larger format. Cyncism may rule some quarters of the internet, but I've moved from an iPad 2 to an iPad Air and to me the difference between the two is palpable and more than a little liberating. It's a damn good evolution.

But, as Ben Thompson of stratechery pointed out shortly after the most recent announcements, Apple seems to have forgotten the 'why' part of the argument for the iPad. Neither of this year's iPads advance the argument, and it's hard to see what Apple could do next year without some serious changes in approach in both software and hardware.

Enter the iPad Pro

Which brings me to my personal favourite notional next step: an iPad Pro. Apple's choice of name for this year's iPad, iPad Air, neatly fits this line of speculation. MacBook Air/iPad Air and MacBook Pro/iPad Pro has a nice symmetry to it, so much so that even a minor league mind such as mine can draw the connections.

Of course, it could all be coincidence and I claim no special knowledge here, but there's a reasonable argument to be made that: a) Apple has a specific interest in 'pro' uses for the iPad; and b) an iPad Pro makes commercial sense and potentially gives many people something they dearly want, me included.

Professional vs Pro... or how Apple sees the world

I'll return to those two points in a moment, but it's worth taking a small diversion at this stage to think about what 'Pro' actually means. Or, more specifically, what it means to Apple, because its idea of 'Pro' rarely tallies with the traditional view in PC land.

You need look no further than the MacBook Pro range for clues. What Apple doesn't do is pander to the old school 'corporate' ideal of the professional PC, which is why it doesn't create docks and other paraphenalia. In recent times its dropped optical drives, dropped matt screen options and has generally done the kind of things Apple always does: simplify.

The key takeaway is this: Apple won't do a Microsoft. An iPad Pro doesn't mean bringing a Mac OS/iOS hybrid to the iPad format, it means extending iOS and the iPad to make it more powerful, more flexible and more useful to people who want to do more than browse the internet, play games and watch video without losing the simplicity and accessibility iOS brings to the iPad.

Surface Pro

Whatever Apple does, it's unlikely to be a hybrid PC like the Surface Pro

Following the breadcrumbs

Diversion safely navigated, it's time to return to the current state of things, where they could lead and the two points I so hastily dropped a moment ago.

Let's start with the first, Apple's interest in 'professional' uses of the iPad. Just re-watch the recent iPad launch to see this and this becomes obvious. Its usual showreel went out of its way to show people using the iPad in unexpected, practical ways: in hospitals, on planes, in retail stores, on... combine harvesters?!

It's by no means a new trend, either. Apple has championed these uses for years, no doubt to promote the iPad as the practical post-PC device Steve Jobs spoke of. He used to talk about the intersection of the liberal arts and humanities. But perhaps this is too limiting a definition now, which would explain why Tim Cook is yet (to my knowledge) to utter it.

The point remains, though, that the idea the iPad is just a consumption device is very out of date. It might be true for some people, but for many others it's for creating and working, as the huge range of apps and accessories show.

Apple's recent moves show it recognises this, too, even if its execution and inclination is still 'pro-lite' right now. Making the iWork apps free and creating the bridge between desktop and iPad in the shape of iWork on iCloud are all steps in the right direction to creating a tightly integrated producitivity ecosystem. It also, very quietly, added a load of extra keyboard shortcuts in the most recent iOS release, surely acknowledging that some people would find them useful.

It's very early days yet, but Apple has shown its intentions here and made much play in pitting its solution to the more serious, 'po-faced' and expensive Microsoft solution: Office 365. No one should seriously compare the two, but Apple's instinct (like Google) is that it can eat some of Microsoft's lunch by offering 'just enough' for people who need it - as opposed to Microsoft's five course meal for a snack option.

Why an iPad Pro makes sense

Which brings me to the second point, why an iPad Pro makes sense both for Apple (commercially) and to potential and existing iPad owners.

iPad ProFor Apple, it would create an upsell for existing iPad owners, and attract new ones who perhaps always hankered after something more practical. It would also have the added benefit of blowing a hole in Microsoft's Surface strategy, as an iPad Pro no doubt would if executed correctly. Microsoft appears to be the only serious rival at the high-end of the tablet market, so cutting it off before it gathers any momentum would be a wise move.

There's another, less obvious, reason to make an iPad Pro, too: as an upgrade path for MacBook Air owners. A glance at recent PC sales show even Apple is now feeling the pinch of slowing computer sales. Admittedly it's also a beneficiary as some of those sales have gone to iPads, but it's harder to sell new MacBooks when the reasons to upgrade decrease every year. A more expensive iPad Pro is a more lucrative alternative (for Apple) than either an iPad or a 'no sale'.

For consumers, meanwhile, an iPad Pro ought to deliver on all the things many people already do on their iPads just with fewer compromises. Keyboards are a case in point, as the current iPad Air isn't large enough to accomodate a 'full size' keyboard accessory in the same way as the Surface 2 or Surface Pro 2. Opting for an 11/12-inch display, as has been rumoured, would alleviate this problem. Moreover, Apple's weight saving for the iPad Air would likely allow it to make a larger iPad Pro at a similar weight to the 'old' iPads.

The other potential avenue of opportunity is... whisper it... a stylus. Yes, yes, I know, Steve Jobs ruled it out all those years ago, but Steve Jobs denied many things that later came to pass. Moreover, Microsoft has already showed you can have a great stylus and 'finger' experience on a tablet in the shape of the Surface Pro. A Surface Pro, let's not forget, that numerous artists (e.g. Ben Kuchera from Penny Arcade) have lauded as a great creative tool. Apple isn't the 'creative professional' company in the way it used to be, but I'm certain quarters of Apple doesn't like the idea of losing such customers to Microsoft.

The real challenge for Apple, however, should it choose to make an iPad Pro, is how to make iOS more iPad friendly -- assuming it doesn't merge Mac OS and iOS, which I'm pretty sure it won't (not yet, at least).

I like iOS 7, but it's plain to see it was designed for iPhone. There are very few, if any, serious efforts to tailor it to iPads. Apple gets away with this because the App Store compensates for it and the iPad hardware is unmatched. But I can't believe Apple doesn't acknowledge (internally) that it could do so much more with the iPad's software.

An iPad Pro would be the perfect opportunity to be more ambitious while retaining the accessibility that makes iPads so popular. I'm not go into how it would do this, mainly because it would take too long and I'm not a software engineer or designer. But when I look at my iPad, which I love, I always yearn for a little more... and a little more doesn't mean widgets. Widgets suck (mostly).

Conclusions

I'm not the first to discuss this idea, and I won't be the last. But I believe that an iPad Pro is a far more likely product than the much talked about iTV, or even an iWatch. I'm not saying either won't happen (though I have serious doubts about iTV), just that an iPad Pro is a more logical next step.

Not only would it extend an already successful product range, it would head off Microsoft's challenge and fill a niche not satisfactorily filled at present. To some minds the iPad is still a toy, and an iPad Pro would be the perfect riposte.

Next, read our iPad Air review

Designergenes

November 16, 2013, 10:39 am

I'd regard the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (and particularly the new hi-res version) as addressing a lot of the points you've raised. It doesn't quite have the app support of the Apple products but it does have a really good stylus (especially with the s-pen accessory) along with great features like the split screen presentation combined with great battery life.

I know that some people can write and draw with a dumb, capacitive stylus and I'm highly envious of their talents but drawing and writing with a proper digitiser is a far better experience. Again, it feels like Apple are really losing a march in the tablet space too, I do like the new iPad Air and it feels like the first machine that is a real step forward from my iPad2 but I believe that the Sony Experia Z is a far more attractive product with superior industrial design and features.

At least if Apple do wish to make an iPad Pro they can nick plenty of inspiration from the best Android tablets.

Jmac

November 18, 2013, 9:43 am

"but Apple remains dominant both in revenues and mind share" - funny you say that, given http://www.trustedreviews.com/...

Ziilch

November 18, 2013, 10:54 am

ipad needs to be able to run things like photoshop and change the art game, currently the photoshop touch is a butchered version of the real thing, and in the professional market with wacom tablets, the very pro ones are crazy expensive, upwards to 2,500 dollars. If they can figure out how to beef out the power of the ipad pro, and make the stylus as sensitive or somehow pair/work with wacom with their current technology that works great, and basically provide a whole other level of functionality and a cheaper price then these expensive devices that work great but are in another price bracket for working people in the industry. And review after review of all these other third party tablets for the home consumer just simply don't master the stylus, its like a bit of a toy, you can write on it sure, but I want to be able to paint or sketch with something thats intuitive, sensitive, and powerful with your ability to control with things the industry is already familiar with, and thats the REAL photoshop, maybe even video editing software like final cut pro etc. I think it could easily be a game changer. Right now they are ignoring the pro crowd that really understands computers, and their trying to hit that fertile market of the typical computer illiterate consumer who doesn't need much more than being able to log into facebook and youtube, and mess around with angry birds like a big glorified iphone.

Evan

November 18, 2013, 12:01 pm

Apple is still dominant as a brand in the tablet space. Android as a tablet operating system is overtaking iOS, though.

Jmac

November 18, 2013, 12:14 pm

Thanks for the clarification. Seems Android tablets are gaining ground, but then they are a fragmented market. Either way, it's certainly true that Apple holds a huge monopoly on mind share - for many people, tablet equals iPad. It's not undeserved, however - the iPad broke ground, and it remains at the pinnacle of technical excellence.

danielfrisbee

November 20, 2013, 2:09 pm

I have a vaio duo, it's not perfect but it's not far off. It's a productive full fat pc, tablet, and has a stylus. Having a touch screen on the desktop is really handy. I also use a mouse with it for CAD stuff. It has more functionality for the £700 I paid for it than the £2500 a friend recently paid for a spec'ed out new macbook pro and iPad. They're beautifully made things but I just don't see where prosvmers in the creative field get a good tool with apple. My friend just browses the web so no issue for him. But creatives I know are crippled literally and financially by apple and above the freelance bracket companies are moving away from apple for serious work. To me apple is a good company for the illiterate consumers you describe, and fair play. I'm tired of apple polluting the creative industries with such limiting products though.

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