Tablet replacements slower too

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.

17 Responses to “Until apps improve more, maybe Apple doesn’t need a new iPad each year”

  1. sfmitch99

    I thought for sure this article was clickbait until I saw who the author was (not a click baiter). So, now I think it is a case of the author not understanding why computer companies come out with new models.

    Apple doesn’t come out with yearly refresh cycles for their products to entice customers who bought the prior generation to dump their practically new version and buy the latest and greatest (sure there is a tiny percentage of folks who do this, but this is not the norm). Rather, either first time buyers or people who own older models are the likely target audience.

    I think the author is too far in the tech forest to see the trees. We see tech writers answer this question every year when the new iPhone (or some other flagship product) is released.

    Think how ridiculous it would be for Apple to sit on newer, better, faster, thinner, lighter, more full featured products instead of releasing them when they are ready.

    Should Apple (and Lenovo, Dell, etc.) stop releasing new computers every year because they only introduce a modest performance (or form factor or price, etc.) improvement? How about cars? Should car manufacturers only release new car models every few years? No, no and no.

    I for one hope Apple (and its’ competitors) keep releasing slightly better products on a regular basis. I’ll jump in when I’m ready.

    • Totally understand your points. Here’s the thing: If anyone were to ask me which iPad to buy right now, I’d steer them AWAY from the new model and tell them to save $100. There’s just little reason for most people to get the latest and greatest IMO. And it is just an opinion, so clearly arguable.

      Bear in mind that in the scenario I outlined, Apple *would* have a new iPad model every year; one would be a rename / very slight upgrade from the prior year (see iPad mini 3) while the other would be a much larger upgrade.

  2. Obviously, the author did not do enough research. Just like in pc, the games are the ones which demands for more powerful pc. Now for ipad, there are gaming companies that are just waiting until ipad becomes powerful enough so they can create games for it. The companies which develops games for pc, requiring graphics cards that are, by itself heavier than ipad. Besides, Apple will not certify an app if it is not running well on their devices. So you see, Apple itself knows that it must do its best to continue upgrading their devices coz software companies are just waiting for ipad to become more powerful so they can release their titles.

    • This point wasn’t overlooked. I mentioned gaming as one of the reasons for improved hardware as well as Metal, which is on the software side.

      Enlighten my research though: which “software companies are just waiting for ipad to become more powerful so they can release their titles”? I doubt many are at all. Why develop games for hardware that doesn’t exists when it’s challenging enough to develop for hardware that is available?

      • Have you not heard of ios apps requiring later iphone, ipad gen? Take Grand theft auto san andreas for instance, it requires iphone 4s or ipad 2 or later. this app have visual enhancements for those who have iphone 5 or ipad 4th gen or later. And do you know what is stopping them from releasing GTA 4 and maybe GTA 5 for ios? If you can answer that already, then you should get the drift. No hardware is powerful enough. These devices will just have to keep on getting better so we can enjoy new content made for them. The supercomputer that we know decades ago are already running and even surpassed by the current mobile devices that we have now. The supercomputer that we know today, will likewise be matched and surpassed by handheld devices someday. Evolution never ceases.

  3. Nicholas Paredes

    New uses drive new apps… Without significant changes to iOS, we are unlikely to see greater changes to app designs. I’m personally a big proponent of merging iOS and OS X more. Apple is unlikely to do this in the near term.

    It is funny that we believe such a successful product is less successful because it reaches penetration so rapidly because it doesn’t need to be replaced very often.

  4. Davin Peterson

    A new Google Nexus Tablet has been coming out every year for the past few years as well: Nexus 10 in 2012, Nexus 7 (2012), Nexus 7 (2013) and last month Nexus 9

  5. A8X and 2 GB has the potential to run two active apps and show a split screen display. Most likely coming with the 12 inch iPad and OS update, using the same hardware as iPad Air 2. Maybe this will give Air 2 sales a boost.

  6. Cat Eldridge

    The iPad models stay usable for very long periods of time, i.e. I just retired my first generation iPad a few months back when I picked a year-old iPad 2 that had been used for a year in some school district before being returned with a broken screen.

    The problem with the one I replaced was that it couldn’t be upgraded to anything past iOS 5x. This one runs iOS 8x and will likely last me three or so years without difficulty.

    Likewise my iPhone is several years old and it too runs the current iOS.

    For longevity nothing beats my decade old eight gigabyte click wheel iPod that works fine and holds a ten to twelve hour charge. I still use when I want to just listen to music when walking.

  7. As long as Apple can keep developing the SoC on time and delivering updates to networking we pretty much have to stick to an annual upgrade. I’d hate to have to wait longer to enjoy the benefits of faster 11ac Wifi or Touch ID because of a 2 year refresh cycle.

  8. I don’t think they should release them less often, though. Just because I don’t need to upgrade from my Air to an Air 2 (although TouchID would really be nice) doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people who have older iPads who aren’t ready for an upgrade. It just means you can treat them more like laptops (keep it for multiple years before upgrading). For example, I’d never say Apple should only release a new laptop every three years because I don’t need to upgrade any more frequently than that.

    So, yes, Apple should depend on a longer upgrade cycle. But that doesn’t mean they should only release a new iPad every two or more years.

    • Great point, Fitzage. In the scenario I’m envisioning, Apple would still release “new” iPads each year but not change the 1-year old model by much. Just like it did with the Mini 3 this year. So it would release new iPads each year but the truly important changes would be on a two year cycle, if that makes sense.

  9. Jeff Kibuule

    I’d say that this year’s iPad is finally good enough to last a couple of years (especially the 2GB RAM, no more Safari tab reloads!). The days of upgrading to a new iPad even for the hardcore Apple enthusiast are now over.