Apple's iPad Air: a step towards an iPad Pro?

Productivity was a common theme throughout yesterday's iPad launch event, hinting at a larger play by Apple to target the enterprise space and perhaps release a work-tailored iPad product later down the line.

Apple’s iPad refreshes announced yesterday were very much a by-the-numbers update that brought about expected tweaks to the company’s iPad line and little much else. 

The iPad will now join the iPhone 5s on the performance front by making the jump to the A7 64-bit chip and the M7 motion co-processor. As many foresaw, Apple have finally introduced the iPad mini with retina display which will undoubtedly bolster their 7-inch tablet offering in the face of increasing competition in the high-resolution tablet arena.

Perhaps the only real surprise was Apple’s decision to continue to sell the rapidly ageing iPad 2 and last year’s iPad mini at discounted prices. This means that, for the first time, Apple has a sub-$350 entry point for their iPads and an expanded tablet line-up that ranges from the lower-end (iPad mini and iPad 2) and extends all the way up to the premium end of the market (iPad Air and iPad mini retina).

Slashing prices on yesterday’s hardware to fill out the bottom end is hardly a new or unique strategy for a tech company, but will it really be enough to sway budget conscious consumers from the Android competition?

New purchases of the iPad 2 and iPad mini will come preloaded with iOS 7 and the latest version of Apple’s mobile OS is also available to existing owners of those devices. The reality though, is that running iOS 7 on the iPad 2 or iPad mini can at times, be a painfully slow experience particularly if your use to the smooth and blazingly fast experience of the iPhone 5s, 5c or the original iPhone 5.  

Performance has improved slightly since the original release of iOS 7 but for a company that prides itself on the end-user experience, the decision to keep these two products in play for another year is a surprising one.

The performance gap is all the more obvious when you start to compare it against the low-end tablet competition. As an example, Google’s Nexus 7 boasts a higher resolution screen and much better overall performance for $50 less than Apple’s iPad mini.

Apple’s sub-$500 offering, however, looks much more competitive with the company introducing an iPad mini utilising the retina display and that is on parity with the flagship, iPad Air, spec-for-spec including the same A7 64-bit chip, 5 megapixel camera and 10 hour rated battery life. The $479 entry point for the new iPad mini also offers the highest resolution (2048x1536) 7-inch tablet currently available on the market.

On the full-sized tablet front, Apple has made the iPad Air the "lightest full-sized tablet on the market" at just under 500grams which is an impressive feat. 

So where does iPad Air sit amongst the full-sized tablet competition?

The nearest competitors on the Android front are Google’s very own Nexus 10 and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014), which both possess a higher resolution 2560x1600 display.

While Apple continues to rely on the fact that they have the largest library of tablet optimised apps, which has now blown out to 475,000, its competitors are instead focusing on making their tablets better productivity devices.

Microsoft has the Surface 2 which can double-up as a laptop with its keyboard accessory and the Samsung Note 10.1 OS is built around its S-Pen stylus.

You need only look at Microsoft’s significant investment into cultivating the productivity tablet market with the Surface and the number of people that currently carry around a keyboard case with their iPads to see that there is real potential here for Apple.

Bundling their iWork and iLife app suite with their iPads for free does not appear to be an aggressive enough approach in order to rival their competition.

Had Apple introduced a first-party keyboard cover accessory and rolled out iPad specific tweaks to iOS 7 that boosted the productivity potential of the device, such as, the ability to run two apps side-by-side, it might have been enough to move the productivity needle.

But could Apple be working towards a larger play here?

The hint may have been revealed in the chosen naming convention of the iPad Air which has been borrowed from Apple’s notebook line as opposed to the numerical increment we are used to seeing with previous iPads.

It seems to beg the question - Could this mean that an iPad Pro with an integrated keyboard and slightly larger screen is soon to follow?

Similar to how Apple introduced the Macbook Air into its notebook line to fulfil consumer interest in a light and low powered laptop, the iPad Pro might indeed be the company’s answer to the demand for a more productive Apple tablet?

Correction: This story originally claimed that using iOS 7 on an iPad 2 or an iPad mini can be a “painful” experience due to lag. This statement has been dialled back, with the story now saying that it can “at times” provide a painful experience and contrasts it to the user experience seen with iOS7 and the latest range of iPhones. 

Krishan Sharma is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and writes for a number of different publications covering business IT and consumer technology.

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