From iWatch to iPad Pro: How Apple could fill the mobile device spectrum

Steve Jobs introduced the original iPad in 2010 by making the case that, in order for a new product category to exist between the smartphone and the laptop it had to be significantly better at certain important things than a smartphone or a laptop. A decade of Tablet PC ruins smote across the market space had made that clear enough. The iPad, case made, went on to achieve phenomenal success. Now, in 2014, the mobile market has grown and various companies are attempting the segment it with even more product categories, including:

  1. Wearables, including smartwatches, below smartphones.
  2. Phablets between phones and tablets, and,
  3. Hybrid... laplets? between tablets and laptops.

Could Apple make a play in any of these additional categories? Could they help define them as successfully as they have the phone, tablet, and laptop? Is there any reason they'd even want to?

Wearables and the iWatch

Apple may one day fill the first category with an iWatch, iBand, or some other form of wearable. There are already fitness bands on the market from Nike, FitBit, Jawbone, and others, as well as watches from Pebble, Samsung, and soon, Motorola and LG. It's not yet a maturing product category, the kind Apple typically enters right before mainstream adoption explodes, but it's a complementary one, much like the Apple TV.

With a wearable, Apple could provide several features below the iPhone:

  1. Base functionality for those for whom even an iPhone is too much computer, all or part of the time.
  2. Deployed sensor array that is better positioned to accumulate data on the body than the iPhone is in the pocket, purse, or left away.
  3. Receiver and display platform for data that's more accessible on the body than the iPhone is in the pocket, purse, or left away.

The biggest difference between this and any other category on the mobile device spectrum is that a wearable can not yet be a primary computing platform. It can't replace a phone or tablet or traditional computer for even a small subset of primary computing tasks the way the iPhone and iPad could and can. One day, perhaps, when interface innovations allow them to provide function beyond their screen size and technology enables radios to work in so small a casing, but likely not for a while.

For now a wearable, like an Apple TV, is likely a companion product that doesn't replace but rather enhances the value of Apple's ecosystem.

I elaborated more on this the other day in iWatch: Five problems I'd like to have solved by an Apple wearable.

Similar to how the iPod shuffle and iPod nano — both wearable in some of their incarnations — sat below the iPod touch and iPod classic and provided a subset of functionality in exchange for even greater portability, so too could an iWatch for iOS.

Phablets and an even bigger iPhone

Samsung made the phablet — half phone, half tablet, or would you prefer tablone? — category into a thing with the introduction of the first Galaxy Note. Since then many other Android manufacturers have followed, and Nokia and Windows Phone have gotten into the game as well. A 5.5- to 6-inch iPhone 6 variant — or a device that size marketed as an iPad or with a completely different name — could fill that gap.

I call it a gap because, obviously, Apple isn't hurting when it comes to current iPhone sales or market share in the premium phone market, which has risen from 65% to 85% by some estimates. However, it's equally apparent that further growth in that market will require some diversification. With a phablet between an iPhone and iPad, Apple could:

  1. Appeal to those who can only afford or are only willing to carry a phone as their primary computing device but need as much functionality (enabled by size) as possible.
  2. Create the potential for a higher class of software made possible by the larger scale (see iPad).
  3. Grow their addressable market while assaulting the last uncontested segment of their competitors in the premium space.

Yes, if Apple changes the resolution of the iPhone screen, even if they go to a standard like 1920x1080p, it will cause pain for developers but so did going Retina, so did going 16:9, and temporary pain in the present for better future products is never something Apple's shied away from.

I went over how a larger iPhones will solve problems for Apple back in January. Similar to how the iPad has two screen sizes, the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have two screen sizes, and the iMac has two screen sizes, Apple's sweet spot for the iPhone should inevitably come to rest on two screen sizes, and one of those might well be the phablet.

Hybrid tablets/laptops and the iPad Pro

Traditional, convertible PCs aside, the idea of something almost as light as a tablet but with a detachable keyboard that makes it as productive as a laptop is something Microsoft has pursued enthusiastically with their Surface line. However, they chose to compromise instead of focus, and none of them have achieved the mainstream success the iPad has. Maybe the category is too niche or maybe, like Tablet PC, no one has yet made the right case.

The existing iPad is already being used with a variety of detachable third-party keyboards that make it, in essence, a convertible. However, the iPads software is geared towards modern, mainstream, multitouch computing and not traditional computing in any way, not even half-way. With an iPad Pro, Apple could:

  1. Provide a large screen size for those for whom productivity is much more important than portability.
  2. Use the additional space to provide additional features like digitizers and higher density cameras.
  3. Explore next-generation interface concepts that enhance functionality without complicating usability.

Making a higher resolution iPad would create similar pain for developers, of course.

I explored several ways Apple could make an iPad Pro truly professional last month. I still think a larger iPhone makes more sense than a larger iPad in today's market, but that doesn't mean a larger iPad won't also make sense at some point as well.

The mobile spectrum

Just like the iPod eventually spread across multiple sizes, capabilities, and price points, so to could iOS. It's what happens when times passes and markets mature. It's how you get more people to buy more devices. Apple has so far cherry picked the prime targets in the mobile space and appealed to an incredibly wide swathe of their customer base. Eventually they may want or need to cherry pick just a few more to appeal to an even wider one.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • If you look at Apple's current products and look at their screen sizes: iPod shuffle: no display
    iPod nano 6th gen: 2.5"
    iPhone 4/4S: 3.5"
    iPhone 5s/5c, iPod touch: 4"
    iPad mini: 7.9"
    iPad Air: 9.7"
    Macbook Air: 11.6"
    Macbook Air/Pro: 13.3"
    Macbook Pro: 15.4"
    iMac: 21.5"
    iMac: 27" Seems like there is an obvious hole between 0" and 2.5", 4" to 7.9", 15.4" and 21.5", and more than 27". So iWatch slots in with screen sizes below 2.5", 2014 iPhones slots in between 4" to 7.9" with 4.7" and 5.7" devices, Apple TV set slots in above 27". So, what's the mystery product between 15.5" and 21.5"? An 18" ultra pro laptop? Low cost 17" iMac? Somewhat jesting...
  • Great stuff. Apple could simply let others produce wearables. That would move it along the spectrum from away from commoditized hardware toward services. Apple's job would be to provide a superb crypto engine for use with health and wealth apps. It's reward: a percentage of hardware and software sales. As long as wearable are connected wirelessly, Apple doesn't take up the burden of supporting hardware it didn't design or produce. (Apple recently replaced my iPod, which was wrecked most probably by a third party, cheap cable.)
  • I think a boot camp version of iOS/OSX for iPads would destroy all other tablets. To be able to throw on a keyboard and flip into OSX or some version of it that included touch would be incredible, only it most definitely would canibalize MBA and MBP sales. But Apple hasn't seemed to worry about that in the past.
  • I don't think this makes sense to anyone but a tech head. If you can read the web, create and edit documents, play media etc. on both platforms, then why does anyone need "the power" of OS X? Both OS's can do all of this already, and one (iOS) is far more user friendly and has a larger group of people using it. I think the idea that there is "more power" in OS X that people somehow "need" is more of a myth than reality.
  • Well it obviously does make a lot of sense to a lot of people, since apple laptops still sell pretty well. Are we to believe that only "tech heads" buy Apple's laptops? Your opinion's and needs are valid for you, and only you.
  • I am very sceptical about the hybrid laptop concept. So far, not a single one has any real sales at all. It seems like a category that people don't want, and that doesn't really make sense. The Surface is the obvious example. A reasonably well-made device with reasonably good software pushed out by a huge company with great market appeal and consumer acceptance, yet it failed. I think it makes more sense for the "cars" to get so powerful that they make the "trucks" obsolete and start hauling the big loads themselves. iOS *desktops* all the way baby!
  • I wouldn't necessarily say the surface failed. There is a market for it, maybe not in the US yet. I have a couple of friends who have surfaces who were ex ipad owners who would never go back to an ipad. Heck I have a friend who ditched his MacBook pro for a surface. Great tablet that's starting to pick up a little momentum. Nexus 5... enough said
  • I can't wait for it to get better. If Apple doesn't come out with a serious competitor to it (a hybrid), I'll get that as my tablet of choice. Pretty much everything I do is cloud related now for mobile use and OS isn't a factor. Hell, if Chrome came out with something really high end I'd get that instead. Sent from the iMore App
  • Is there any spectrum need to be filled? Why don't they just focus on how to make Iphone works and looks even better. Seriously, in terms of technology and feature, iPhone is not the best phone anymore. Is iPhone water and dust-proof like Sony's and Samsung's? Nope. Is Iphone's speaker better than HTC's? Nope. Does iPhone have the highest resolution among other smartphone? Nope. Is iPhone's screen bigger than other android smarphone? Nope. Does iPhone have bigger RAM compare to other smartphones? Nope. Does iPhone have a/c wifi like other top-notch android smartphone? Nope. So after all the fact I mentioned above, is it wise for Apple to make a completely new product category and take another risk? Just build a better, nicer, more modern and has better build quality iPhone 6 and leave the smartwatch market for let's say another year or two.
  • You're rattling off specs in an experience fight. "The best" means different things to different people.
  • That's true, but I'd rather, and a lot of others too, would like to see a more refined iphone. A lot of my iphone buddies say they wish the iphone had speakers like the HTC ONE, or had a bigger screen, but they love the OS. I think they should add stuff like this to a product that is already attractive. Nexus 5... enough said
  • iPhone was and never will be the best smartphone for every bullet point. But none of the phones that you also list are the best either, are they? Most of the things you list just don't play into any purchasing decision. They are bullet points for sales people or forum arguments. iPhone is still the all around best smartphone in general for me because of camera, iOS, iTunes integration, size (bigger does not equate to better in phones), battery life and apple ecosystem but some of these things do matter to others. That being said they could improve upon things like battery life, iOS 7 stability and features but these things will come whether they introduce a new product or not so I don't think Apple should slow down in the new or revised product categories.
  • I think even the thought of this article tells me that Apple is going to an area they have not before and a very pleasing idea indeed for the public. This is great.