The new iPad: how Apple is training us to understand the half-life of a tablet

Amongst the well-informed, highly-speculative technorati, there was little about Apple’s iPad announcement that wasn’t already ‘known’. It was already ‘known’ the device would ship with LTE support, ‘known’ that it would feature a quad-core CPU, and ‘known’ that the new screen would be a brilliant Retina display. About the only thing that wasn’t definitively known was the name: iPad 3 or iPad HD?

How about just ‘the new iPad’? Whoops.

Beyond providing a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the benefits of waiting for announcements to know what will be announced, Apple’s shift in iPad branding is important for two reasons. The first reason being that tablets are here to stay, and the new normal in the post-PC era.

This may seem like an obvious statement to make, but it has to be remembered that the first iPad came out less than two years ago! In that time, the tablet format has gone from unproven gamble to established product category, while competing formats like netbooks have come and gone. Janko Roettgers has a wonderful article on GigaOM about Apple’s recognition of their accomplishment:

Apple is acknowledging that we have arrived in a post-PC world, where iPads aren’t just niche products for gadget lovers with an eye for specs and revision numbers. Instead, they’re among the best-selling computing devices, something that everyone uses to explore the Internet, do commerce and consume media… In a way, not going for names like iPad 3 or iPad HD shows that the iPad has grown up: it’s a device that’s here to stay and shape the post-PC world for years to come.

Roettgers correctly notes that the iPad’s name change puts it inline with Apple’s PC devices: the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac mini. More than a simple alignment in naming convention, however, this branding shift is also intended to influence product and performance expectations for tablets. Roettger explains:

Sure, the most dedicated Apple followers will always know which generation of the MacBook Pro has which CPU, and which ports are present on which laptop iteration. But for the rest of us, these differences don’t matter all that much. We buy the latest generation, trusting Apple that the hardware will live up to our expectations. We expect the MacBook Air to be the best in portable computing and the MacBook Pro to be powerful – and we don’t need complicated revision numbers to keep track of all the changes over the years.

Apple in fact echoes this statement in their own marketing video for the new iPad, which was played during the keynote and is now embedded on their site.

We believe technology is at its very best when it’s invisible. When you’re conscious only of what you’re doing, not the device you’re doing it with… [An iPad] is this magical pane of glass, that can become anything you want it to be… With the new iPad, we’re elevating that experience, by dramatically improving the fundamental elements that define it.

The final two sentences are the most telling. What Apple is saying is that the iPad experience (and thus the comprehensive tablet experience) has already been defined. New product releases will only seek to refine that experience, not alter it, even if the refinement is to ‘dramatic’ levels (which by all in-person accounts the Retina display seems to be). In the end, the important thing isn’t which iPad you have, but that you have an iPad.

Of course, if this is the case, the question of a tablet’s half-life moves to the forefront, which is the second reason why Apple’s iPad shift is so compelling. Apple currently releases new iPads at a rate of once of once every 12 months, which is similar to that of their laptop line. But the lifespan of a laptop is at least 3 years, and likely closer to 4-5 years depending on type and intensity of use. As a truly post-PC device, I feel that the lifespan of a tablet might be just as long if not longer. Look at it this way: spec bumps and processing power are important to the designers, engineers and programmers that live on their laptop, but is it important for browsing the web, streaming videos or playing Angry Birds? This is exactly the point my partner Rob was trying to make when he asked back in January if a quad core processor makes the iPad 4x better.

Or to put it another way: if you replaced the iPad 2 in Om Malik’s mother’s hand right now with the new iPad, would she even notice? Maybe. But I doubt it would alter her joyful experience any. Technology is at its best when it’s invisible.

One final thought: I find it telling that Apple did not take the opportunity drop the naming convention of the iPhone with their 4S launch. With handsets often replaced every 18-24 months, perhaps the smartphone lifespan is so short as to require declarative product releases over product line refreshes. Or perhaps we’ll all be surprised again in 6 months when we’re shown for the first time ‘the new iPhone’. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

About the author

Douglas Soltys

Douglas is the former Editor-In-Chief of Inside BlackBerry, BlackBerry Cool, and QuicklyBored, which he launched as a mobile gaming industry site. His knowledge of mobile and social media led him to a job at RIM (BlackBerry), where he got to travel the world and do lots of cool things. He is often left-handed, but rarely sinister.

  • The need to differentiate a product based on the name of the product is rooted in the desire to highlight the differences between the previous product and the new one. If the differences are material, a new name helps consumers with ego (my iPad is v2 not like your crappy v1) and developers will communicating spec requirements to their customers. The market for laptops is mature and each year brings only incremental updates to the products. Apple, by not changing the name of the iPad, as you note, is signifying that they believe the tablet market has reached a point of maturity that annual differences in tablets will be incremental not revolutionary — and let’s face it, none of their competitors have given them competition to change that opinion. When Apple deems a new tablet version to be so materially different that they need to create a buzz and impact with the new naming, they’ll do that again. The gamble Apple is taking is that their competitors will not release a tablet in the meantime that has some revolutionary new feature and the minimum base specs of “the new iPad” thereby making people think the iPad is ‘old’ (because the brand is not 2012 like a ‘3’ or ‘HD’ branding would communicate) compared to the new rival.

    It’s a fair risk, but not one I think they will be able to take with their iPhone lineup as there are too may companies iterating too fast on mobile phone designs for Apple to risk and chink in the brand perception of iPhone as the best and newest.

  • I think you’re spot on. Just like with the Macbook Air, if they can create an iPad so different as to require it’s own branding (iPad Mini perhaps?), they’ll do it. But I don’t think it’s much of a gamble. Everyone else is way behind. Jenn Daly has a great article on this coming out Monday.

  • Everyone else is way behind on the integrated ecosystem. not very far behind on the interface, and basically equal on the hardware. Apple will always have the brand cache which makes a major difference but I don’t think they’re as far ahead as they appear — though they could have maintained that gap with a significant device upgrade (iPad 3). I’m looking forward to Jenn’s article.

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