Apple is widely expected to introduce iPad 2 sometime in the next few months and, if they follow the same yearly cycle they have for iPhone and iPod touch, ship it in April 2011 running iOS... what exactly? iOS 4.2 still? A new iOS 4.3? Last year iPad was unveiled running iOS 3.2 (then called iPhone OS 3.2). iPhone was running iOS 3.1, and iOS 3.2 looked similar yet at the same time as fresh and new as iPad itself. The same only bigger and in some ways, better. Background wallpaper and home screen rotation alone were enough to make it look new, as were sidebars in landscape and popovers in portrait mode.
Then iPhone got iOS 4 in June, not only closing the gap but with multitasking, folders, threaded email, and other new features, surpassing the iPad, which stayed trapped on iOS 3.2 until November, when iOS 4.2 finally unified the product line. If Apple sticks to pattern iOS 5 will be previewed around the same time as iPad 2 but won't launch until iPhone 5 does in June, 2011. So it seems like there are a three major options:
Apple keeps iOS unified, launching iPad 2 with iOS 4.2 in April and hoping hardware alone wow-factor enough to get attention, entice upgrades, and keep the growing competition at bay. Or Apple waits until June to launch iPad 2 alongside iPhone 5 and iOS 5, getting software along with hardware bang but giving the competition more time to catch up.
Apple fragments iOS again like they did last year, launching iPad 2 with a major, iPad-only iOS 4.3 update in April and once again putting it ahead of iPhone and iPod touch for several months, either to unify again in June with iOS 5, or to take its turn and languish again for a September or November, 2011 iOS 5.1/iOS 5.2 unification.
Apple pulls an iPod touch, introducing a minor iOS update with a couple of new features that become available to all iOS devices at pretty much the same time. Pretty much what they did with iOS 4.1 last September with Ping, Game Center, and TV rentals.
iPhone always gets the added bump of a new iOS come launch time and even though iOS itself is previewed months before, Steve Jobs usually saves a few key, hardware-based features to announce at WWDC (like FaceTime and HD video last year). iPad got that same bump with iOS 3.2 last year. I can't imagine Apple not adding some software sizzle to new iPad hardware in 2011, beyond the FaceTime we know will come with camera(s). At the same time, the mere thought of the platform being fragmented again is worrisome. That leads me to believe we'll get option #3, the minor, cross-platform update, with a small amount of new features like broader AirPlay and AirPrint support, subscription billing for apps, and maybe one or two other bullet points.
That keeps iPhone as the big flagship release alongside the new iOS every year and lets iPad and iPod touch bookend it, or rather follow up and follow up again until the next major product cycle begins.
So iPad 2 could just ship with iOS 4.3, but I'm betting iOS 4.3 won't be the leap forward iOS 3.2 was, it'll be the tiny step of iOS 4.1. What do you think?