Apple did something Tuesday it has not been able to pull off for a couple of years: It surprised the smack out of us. Sure, we all expected the iPad Mini and what Apple produced was right in line with our expectations. The kick in the head? Apple's brand new fourth-generation iPad. Looking at timing and specifications, one has to wonder: Why did the third-generation "new" iPad released in March ever exist in the first place.
How Good Was The New iPad?
The “new” iPad (never, ever the iPad 3, of course) was released in March. It was supposed to be a marvel of modern engineering, mostly because it incorporated Apple’s Retina Display and came equipped with a better processor than the iPad 2. Yet, the third-generation was not without its warts. It was thicker than the iPad 2 and many people noted that it “ran hot” when using screen-intensive functions like video or games.
When I first got my hands on the third-generation iPad, I was a little surprised at how thick it was. Since the launch of the original iPhone in 2007, Apple had never released a new product in its iOS line that was thicker than the previous iteration. Being thin is as much a part of Apple innovative design as are those vaunted bezels. But the new iPad was thicker and, despite the Retina Display and smoothness of its iOS iteration, it felt a bit clunky. This was not what I was expecting and at the time I saw no reason to pony up the money to upgrade from my iPad 2 (which is still a respectable device).
The question was immediately asked: would Steve Jobs have approved? I do not like putting words in a dead man’s mouth, but the new iPad did seeme to lack a certain polish that had been present in the first two iterations.
Maybe Apple felt the same way. Here we are, a little more than six months later and the third generation is being replaced by a fourth. It is the same thickness as the third generation (0.37 inch) and is equipped with a new processor (A6X with quad core graphics) that is more powerful than that of the A6 in iPhone 5. The Wi-Fi and LTE receptors have been improved as have the camera sensors.
Why Did Apple Do A Refresh?
It is not a huge upgrade, really. The dimensions are almost exactly the same, the Retina display is exactly the same and the price is exactly the same. So, why bother with the refresh? The third-generation iPad was a perfectly acceptable device. Right?
There are two theories here. The first and most pertinent is that Apple knows how much it relies on the holiday shopping season for its profit. Apple does well every financial quarter in past years, but the revenue from the holiday quarter is staggering. It behooves Apple to refresh the iPad, call it a brand new product and sell the hell out of it to holiday shoppers. “The new iPad is even newer!”
Apple touted during Tuesday's event that the iPad outsold all competitors in the laptop market in Q2 this year. So, a spring launch of the iPad also made sense, even if the particular device may not have been up to Apple's standards.
Technology vs. Marketing
These are all marketing concerns. Apple deftly plays the timing of its device launches - every launch is timed for maximum impact. From a technology perspective though, if Apple figured it would refresh the iPad later in 2012 anyway, why bother releasing the third-generation in the first place?
Apple has made consumers wait before. There was a 15-month period between the launch of the iPhone 4 and the 4S. If Apple had not released the “new” iPad in the spring and waited until today, it would have gone 19 months between iPad updates. Speculation would have been rampant and consumer expectation ready to explode. Would that have led to higher overall sales? Maybe, but not likely. Samsung has proved that releasing multiple versions of a product in a short term can be very beneficial to its bottom line.
The fourth-generation iPad is not so substantially different from the third that Apple needed to do anything at all. Today’s announcement is Apple implying that it made a mistake with the “new” iPad in March, that it could have (and probably should have) waited the extra months to polish the innards. The fact that the third-generation iPad is being discontinued speaks to that notion. Instead of discontinuing the iPad 2 and lowering the price of the third-generation, the iPad 2 is still on the market.
The bottom line for Apple in this particular snafu is… well, its bottom line. The third and fourth generation iPads are almost exactly the same product except for some performance improvements. By releasing new iPads twice in the same year, Apple gets to drum up more excitement for its tablet and sell more units.