Why did Apple upgrade the iPad this quickly?

Sections: Features, iPad, iPad mini, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, Opinions and Editorials, Originals

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Yesterday, Apple introduced a slew of products, the centerpiece of which was the highly anticipated iPad mini. What was not anticipated was that Apple would introduce a new generation to the iPad itself, only six months after the last rollout. The unprecedented short turnaround has left some 3rd gen owners feeling burned, a complaint that is somewhat ridiculous since they still have the same device they paid for. But for a company that pays as much attention to customer service as Apple, it raises the question: why upgrade so quickly? Let’s take a look at some possible explanations:

The iPad Mini

Apple is heading into the holiday season still holding a king’s share of the tablet market, but the king is facing increased competition. Amazon has a whole family of Kindle tablets, some of which can run apps, Microsoft is gearing up to release its Slate tablet with Windows 8 RT, and Android makers are finding increased success with smaller tablet forms. The iPad mini is obviously in competition with the latter, but it’s also in competition with the iPad itself.

Let’s play a game of pretend. You’re a consumer who wants an iPad for Christmas. Would you ask for the 3rd gen iPad, which has a better display and slightly faster processor (A5x vs. the mini’s A5), or do you ask for the new thing, anticipating that Apple will update the iPad in six months and then you’ll be P.O.’d because your shiny new iPad is out of date.

My guess is you’ll ask for the iPad mini because, ridiculous or not, part of the joy in owning a gadget is owning the latest version. So, people buy minis rather than iPads, cutting into the profit margin.

The Holidays

This just makes good business sense: Apple is resetting the clock, altering the upgrade once-a-year product cycle to put the new version of the iPhone and iPad out right before the prime buying season. Also, it consolidates the iPad line.

Other Tablets

Microsoft is coming out with a piece of hardware, the Slate tablet, to compete with the iPad. The product is astonishing because MS is attempting to make “the whole widget,” as Steve Jobs would say; putting together the hardware and software themselves to make it work as well as possible.  The jury is still out on how good it is, and while Apple may not be worried about losing their majority share of the tablet market right now, they’d be fools not to pay attention to how the market is changing.

And so, in the same period that their old adversary announces a new product, Apple comes out with the latest-and-greatest version of their tablet. It’s a headline-stealing move, to be sure, but you may recall that just before Apple announced the original iPad, Microsoft devoted part of their CES keynote to showing off their “amazing new” Windows tablets, few of which (if any) actually made it to market.

The upgrade announcement is part showmanship, pure and simple. Everyone’s talking about the new Slate tablet? Well here’s our new product, only six months later. Take a look at this.

The Lightning Connector

Right now the iPad 2 and the classic iPod are the only product that Apple sells that still uses the old iPod cable (the super tiny iPod shuffle powers through the headphone jack). And I’m guessing now that the mini fits in the “introductory price” bracket, the iPad 2 won’t be sticking around that long (and the classic moves to Lightning as well). Apple wants to consolidate behind the new connector. Once they cut something off, like a diskette drive, the Apple Data Bus cable, and now, the optical drive, they move fairly quickly, brining the whole line into the new way of doing things one at a time.

Really, it’s an iPad 3s

There was a lot of speculation as to why, when Apple announced “the new iPad” last May, they didn’t call it the iPad 3. I think now we know: they realized that this 4th generation upgrade was coming. Apple wasn’t willing to leave the iPad 2 as their only tablet until October, so they came out with a retina display and faster processor six months ago to help keep their lead in the market and cut off comments of “Oh, Apple hasn’t updated the iPad in a year and a half, they’ve lost their edge.”

True, Apple upgraded the iPad to the 4th generation, now known on the Apple site as the “iPad with Retina Display” to differentiate it from the mini and the iPad 2 (still for sale). Notice what’s not for sale as a new product? The iPad 3rd generation. Why not sell it as the “intro” model instead of the iPad 2? Because it uses almost all the same components as the 4th gen, which would not only create another pricing tier that Apple wouldn’t want to deal with, but complicate their supply line.

But strictly speaking, this isn’t a big change like going from the iPad 2 to the Retina display of the 3. This is a bump in processor and a few other enhancements. This is the iPad 3s. They’re just not calling it that.

Another upgrade in six months?

There’s been a lot of weeping and wailing on the internet about this quick upgrade, and speculation that people who buy an iPad now will feel the same way in another six months. But I don’t think so. I think Apple will go back to their once-a-year cycle, and that this change was a necessary aberration to consolidate a fast-growing product line right before the holidays. When the original iPad debuted, it was an unusual product in an unproven category; tablet computers had existed for some time, but none of them had been very successful. So rather than put it out right before the holidays, they brought it out right after that, perhaps to take a little pressure off.

But now the iPad is huge. And I think that they feel that dealing with some geek rage for a few months to put a hot product out right before the biggest retail season of the year is a good gamble.

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  • Craig Steffen

    Good points, except although I’m sure they’re keeping any eye on it, I would have to assume that Apple considers the Kindle and Android tablets their real competion, and the MS version is likely to be a bump in the road.

    I agree that it makes sense for Apple to synchronize their (now) two tablet lines so that it’s clear that one isn’t the replacement for the other; there are now two tiers, separated by physical screen size. They now have a dual-tier phalanx to deal with the up-and-comers.

    As far as too-fast upgrades, frankly, I’m still annoyed that my not-even-two-years-old iPad 1 has now been cut off from OS upgrades. I guess I can understand that consumer-level browser-box devices are Apple’s primary target, but if their devices are only good for 18 months, then they’re going to cut off the industries that were lining up to certify the iPad for serious uses (Two airlines have announced plans to put aeronautical publications, charts and so on, on iPads instead of on paper.)

  • dee

    I’m one of the 3rd gen IPad owners and I can tell I’m not going after apple product because they no longer follow their “once-a-year” release cycle. I can see they left mini with room to upgrade (ex, faster CPU, better screen, etc.) And I’m sure they will upgrade the mini six months after. If they release product like this, its better to get a cheaper product and just buy it every six month to stay on top. Beside, if I’m buying for this holiday I will try window RT.

  • Jerry

    Here’s my thought: Were they at the point in th iPad 3 production where they had to get more components from Samsung, and decided to replace all Samsung parts/components with parts sourced from other suppliers?

  • Snowy

    Dear Dee,
    I understand where you are coming from…. but what is the problem??? You are owner iPad 3 and you are happy with it… stay with it! You are not required to upgrade every 6 mons. If I were you, I’ll keep my iPad 3 for a few more years and I know Apple products will come out better and better every year. Bottom line, stop worry so much. :) When YOU know when its time to upgrade your iPad model down the road. You’ll be happy. By the way, Good luck with Window RT…. disaster!

    5. Even some traditional Microsoft programs won’t work with Windows RT. Outlook is one of those, and Windows Media Player is another.

    10. Overall, Windows RT vs. Windows 8 is pretty darn confusing. Microsoft hasn’t done the best job explaining the differences, and many consumers are likely to buy RT only to find out they don’t have the full functionality of Windows 8.