The iPad Air announcement: Where do tablets go from now?

The Cupertino giant’s reveal this Thursday may have contained few surprises, but it did underscore which way the mobile device manufacturer market is turning and raise questions about its long term future

The long game: Device-manufacturers and long term strategies

Apple’s recent double announcement of a new iPad Mini with retinal display and iPad Air shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to most of the tech sector. Following hot on the trails of Microsoft’s somewhat lacklustre Surface 2 launch, it’s further evidence that mobile device manufacturers have more or less “maxed out” the possible device-size form factors they can experiment with and are now more preoccupied with a process of device refinement and miniaturization across their mobile range.

Tim Cook’s keynote therefore must have seemed disappointing to those who expected an earth-shaking announcement of some kind, but again, it’s important not to diminish the importance of what it actually means in terms of the tablet product cycle. New electronic products usually take five years or more to reach the stage at which refinement becomes the main priority of designers, Apple’s iPad has taken just three. That’s testament to the weight of consumer purchasing power that’s propelled these devices into people’s offices and living rooms (more than 170 million since 2010, according to Apple).

There’s a strategy behind this. Apple’s upper management knows the first generation head start they had is long gone and that they’re going to have to directly challenge other manufacturers in an increasingly oligopolistic market without that advantage, the announcement of a more mid-range orientated iPhone in September underscored this. Cook is banking on the fact that the tablet market is now mature enough to begin trying to win over customers that may have been lost to Samsung and do this on the basis of relatively marginal differences in size, dimension and power cosmetically, all leveraged by Apple’s unassailable boutique image. There’s no re-invention here, just building upon an established foundation.

An as yet invisible advantage

Beyond the news of the retinal display for the iPad Mini there was one other particularly interesting piece of hardware-related news. Apple’s inclusion of A7 System-on-Chip architecture on the iPad Air (the same architecture used for the iPhone 5C) represents an at least implicit belief that tablets are going to take on a more computationally heavy workload in what capable of. Changes to registers, cache sizes and the instruction set may not sound like marketable selling points, but the benchmarking results of the 5C’s A7 point towards some of the most significant performance improvements yet, particularly in terms of rendering.

On the consumer’s end this advantage which, in fairness to Apple is months ahead of nearly all other vendors, translates firstly into significantly improved gaming performance. This is vital for Apple because games are currently the main engine of revenue growth on the App Store and mobile gaming is an area where they could, with the right strategy see off Android, with its cumbersome, heterogeneous development environment and low revenue-to-device ratio, fairly easily whilst eating into dedicated handheld gaming device market share from other competitors.

Secondly and perhaps even more significantly, it opens the door to future resource-intensive enterprise software for tablets. This is an area where Apple as a company possesses extraordinary asset-based strength. The issue however, is that for Apple to properly leverage its professional software packages like Logic and Final Cut Pro properly, it would need to develop either an absurdly responsive (and as yet conceptually unheard of) haptic interface or hybridize their iPad range by including physical keyboards (a la Microsoft Surface/Surface 2).

The future challenge

On the complete polar end of the equation, Thorsten Heins, Blackberry’s CEO recently raised some controversy related to the above in an interview with Bloomberg just a few days ago. He asserted (with no lack of confidence) that tablets would be “useless within five years” citing the rise of phablet devices and their relative lack of utility when compared to workstation-centric devices like laptops.

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss Heins’ views as little more than sour grapes, motivated primarily by the frankly abysmal failure of RIM’s Playbook range but his comments are worth some discussion. It’s important to remember that at the moment, tablets are largely replicating the role of smartphones albeit with a larger form factor. Software-wise even the iPad offers very little by way of differentiation in utility from the iPhone, beyond being better at what the iPhone already does (as a media player, as an e-reader and so on).

For tablets to maintain the interest of consumers, manufacturers need to be bold about assuming workstation, gaming and professional software roles which at the moment are considered the reserve of other devices.

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