Until apps improve more, maybe Apple doesn’t need a new iPad each year

Back in October, Apple debuted the iPad Air 2. I’ve been using a loaner model from the company for the past several weeks and I’ll share more on it in a future post.

I can already say, however, that I won’t be upgrading from the iPad Air I bought last year. That’s not because the Air 2 isn’t better; it is. But I think we’re at a point where Apple’s tablet hardware has outpaced the software by more than ever. And I’m not sure Apple needs to keep refreshing the iPad line on a yearly basis for that and a few other reasons.

CUPERTINO, CA - OCTOBER 16:  An attendee inspects new iPad Air 2 during an Apple special event on October 16, 2014 in Cupertino, California.  Apple unveiled the new iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 tablets and the iMac with 5K retina display.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Yes, everything is a little faster on the new tablet. You’d expect that, of course.

But for the tasks that I do on the iPad, that speed increase is negligible on the new slate. For content consumption, such as watching video, there’s no real difference at all. Games still play more than fast enough. Essentially, I’m not using applications that can or need to take full advantage of the extra horsepower in the iPad Air 2 with the [company]Apple[/company] A8x chip and 2 GB of memory. I suspect most others who own last year’s iPad Air fall into the same category; of course there will always be exceptions.

It would be a different story if more complex and powerful tablet apps were the norm here. And I’m sure some apps fitting that category do exist. But out of the millions of iPad apps available today, they would make up a small percentage. The iPad Air 2 seems a bit future-proof, while the Air seems more than good enough (and $100 less expensive) as a result.

Put another way: Is there a “killer app” that really needs the iPad Air 2 hardware to make a huge impact? I can’t think of one.

Apple Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference at the Moscone West center on June 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Note that I’m not trying to put down app developers here. There are tens of thousands of programmers working hard to make great iOS apps. Some will be happy to see the new Metal graphics tool available in iOS 8 for sure. And I have no doubt that more visually and computationally complex apps will be afforded a better experience on the iPad Air 2. I just haven’t seen a software-based reason to compel many people to upgrade their hardware. It may take a year or more before app capabilities catch up to the hardware in the latest iPad.

Perhaps this is why the iPad mini 3 wasn’t anything more than last year’s iPad mini with the addition of a Touch ID sensor. I’m starting to think that Apple is transitioning from a yearly refresh cycle for its iPad line to perhaps a two-year cycle. Yes, there technically was a new iPad mini model introduced in September — it got all of 30 seconds on stage in a 1.5 hour event — but let’s face it: It’s barely different from the prior year’s model.

iPad Mini 3

I think next fall we’ll see the same happen but in reverse. The iPad mini will get the larger upgrade while the iPad Air line doesn’t change much. This would essentially put both on a 24 month refresh cycle, with one of the two tablets getting big changes each year. I’d also expect the rumored iPad Pro, a 12.2-inch iPad, to figure in here next year as well. Perhaps that gets a spring launch, but we’ll see.

Hardware advancing faster than the pace of software is only part of my thought process though. We now have nearly four years of iPad sales data to glimpse the customer upgrade cycle. And guess what: People aren’t recycling tablets as fast as they do with phones. The growth rate for tablet sales has slowed, partially for this reason.

iPad sales may have peaked to some degree because for most, they’re accessory devices. Phones are still more of a necessity for people; hence the larger overall market for them.

Apple sees the same data, so surely it knows this. And being the master supply chain company that Apple is, it might actually be beneficial to slow down the pace of iPad release cycles. Why create chips to power new iPads when the production line could be aimed at building chips for more iPhones? As it is, Apple is creating more and more iPhones even as demand grows faster than it is for iPads. Evening out iPad refresh cycles to a two-year plan could help Apple better manage the annual iPad release.

We’ll have to wait a while to see if my thought process is right, of course. Logically though, unless there is a sudden explosion in iPad apps that simply need the latest and greatest hardware Apple has to offer, there’s less of a reason for consumers to upgrade their iPads each year.