Simplifying the iPad product line

iPads screen size hero
iPads screen size hero (Image credit: iMore)

iPad now is nowhere nearly as impenetrable as Mac then, yet it's no longer simple either. Steve Jobs originally introduced Apple's tablet as a window into apps and the web that had to fight for its right to exist in between iPhone and Mac. Then it got lighter and even smaller. At the same time iPhone got bigger and the Mac lighter. Now iPad has gone Pro, and in so doing finds itself spread across three brands, three sizes, and three generations.

  • 12.9 inch iPad Pro (A9).
  • 9.7 inch iPad Pro (A9) and iPad Air 2 (A8).
  • 7.9 inch iPad mini 4 (A8) and iPad mini 2 (A7).

Could Tim Cook's Apple do now what Steve Jobs did then? Could Apple make iPad simple and understandable again?

Every time I walk down the isle of an airplane, I see men and women, young and old, business travelers and vacationers, using iPads. Some big, some small. Some working on keyboards, others watching movies. Some reading, others gaming. Many transitioning easily from one to the other and back. Same with coffee shops. Same with family rooms. Same with waiting rooms. Same with... almost anywhere.

The complexity isn't in the utility, it's in navigating the original purchasing decision. In that regard, when you get right down to it, there's really only two iPads to consider:

  • Pro, with support for Smart Connector and Apple Pencil
  • Non-pro, without such support.

Apple could, if the company chose, field iPads in all three sizes, with and without Connector and Pencil support. Apple could also, eventually, keep older generation versions of any iPad available to provide lower, more entry-level price points. Those are details and don't affect the bigger picture.

Consumer and professional, small and big. Don't obsess over the names, though. They could be anything. Apple currently has Pro, Air, and mini in the Mac line, but they seem ready to deprecate Air for the simpler, suffix-less Macbook. Taking a cue from that, how about iPad Pro and iPad?

iPad Pro, regardless of size, has the Smart Connector and Apple Pencil, and whatever other advanced technologies Apple introduces as the higher end. iPad, regardless of size, doesn't.

Apple could stick with two sizes per category or go to three. It doesn't really matter. The tradeoff is portability vs. productivity, each enabled by its relative size.

If Apple wants to keep previous generations around to keep the cost of entry low, that does threaten complexity again. Even that could be managed, though, by an over-arching brand for just such entry-level devices. Similar to what Apple just did with iPhone SE, adding a letter or two avoids model numbers aging out and allows them to subsist on the market for as long as needed.

There would still be different colors and capacities, but so what? Macs persisted — and persist — with different storage sizes, memory sizes, processor speeds, and colors. Before, during, and after they were "grid'ed". To most people, post-purchase, it's simply their Mac.

In that light, even the above grid is likely too much. In the not-so-distant future, it's easy to see all iPads having Smart Connector and Pencil support, and people can simply choose if or when they want to buy the ad-ons.

In that future, the Pro distinction falls way as well, no longer supported by product or brand. And the bigger picture gets even simpler.

So does the story: iPad is your window into apps and the web, and you can get as much or as little of it as you want.

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.

  • Question: Can you use the 12 inch iPad Pro keyboard with a 9.7 inch iPad Pro?
  • Sure can, just looks like it's wearing giant pants :)
  • I wish the iPad Pro would expand on its trackpad feature. Right now you can only do it within text fields, meaning you still have to use the old method for selecting text from a webpage or PDF.
  • iPad is a post-mouse device, as such there's no system-wide pointer functionality built in. Apple would have to go back and retrofit it.
  • I don't think post-mouse is the right term, mouse-less might be more fitting. Post-mouse implies it has a better solution to achieve the same functionality, which it doesn't. Sent from the iMore App
  • The issue, as I see it, is the 9.7" iPad is not a "pro" device, rather its just a marketing term. I can see consumers opting for this because of the pencil and keyboard. I don't understand why apple is keep both 9.7" models - one will certainly cannibalize the other.
  • That's what command line people said about the Mac. iPad Pro is already as "pro" as a Mac for me, it's just different.
  • Is "pro" just based on size then? I see Rene's argument that "pro" is features: Pencil support and top of the line hardware. Just like the MacBook Pro line comes in a couple sizes, so too can iOS devices. I'm sure there are plenty of people who would think "I don't need that [insert feature]" and opt to save $100 or more. I think that's the point of this article. Apple has the opportunity to establish their iOS lines just like their Mac lines. Something like MacBook Air 11" & 13" : iPad mini & iPad Air, MacBook Pro 13" & 15" : iPad Pro 9.7" & 12.9".
  • "Is "pro" just based on size then? I see Rene's argument that "pro" is features: Pencil support and top of the line hardware" Does adding pencil support and keyboard (which in themselves require a huge premium) justify the $70-$100 price tag increase?? Also, the iPad Air 2 was top of the line hardware when it was released and kept the same price tag, what is so different now besides a better processor, pencil and keyboard and the same 2 GB of RAM??
  • Apple needed a new way to charge a $100 premium so they called it "pro"
  • I think this is the key to understanding the whole thing. "Pro" is just this year's marketing name. Just like "Air" was last year's marketing name. Rene (and the other Apple bloggers) can't actually come out and say this because he's indebted to Apple for his livelihood and so forth, but everyone knows it's true. Marketing is part of advertising and advertising is an activity *based* on deception. This is just how things are sold. The "Pro" is barely different from last year's iPad Air. The name is just Apple's way of saying, "... remember folks, this thing can do actual work and btw you should expect to pay as much as a laptop for one." It's generally referred to as "repositioning your product in the marketplace," and "increasing your ASP." It's generally done when sales of your product start flagging (ring any bells?) and you need to make more money per item as well as increase the perception that your product is worth the money you are charging for it.
  • Pro to me means it's designed for professionals. The keyboard is hardly pro on either system. The speed differential simply doesn't make it pro either since no A8 or higher based iOS devices are remotely slow for 99% of available applications. Better internal sound is nice but that's a consumer thing, not a pro thing. So that leaves the Pencil and paying $100 for one is perfectly reasonable but there's simply not enough differentiation to use the Pro moniker on either of the newest iPad Pros. They're quite reasonable upgrades to the iPad Air 2 but no more or less than one should reasonably expect 12 and 18 months after the release of the Air 2. The Air 2 is simply the old hotness at a lower price point, no more or less different than all the previous iPads sold at that $100 off price point. Just as the Air 2 wasn't a Pro iPad upon its original release, neither is the iPad Pro. And they don't really need to make the iPad itself better to be Pro. They need iOS to be Pro for the iPad using it to be Pro. Add more functionality to iOS that works on a specific iPad and ONLY then are we talking.
  • Sorry -- having trouble with the Apple kb on the 12" iPad Pro and hit enter. It would be nice if the Apple keyboard for the iPad pro had a trackpad area. Also, Apple has a file system that is somewhere between the Mac file system and iOS files system: I wonder if this could be the solution for a more robust filesystem on the iPad.
  • The correct link is: Soup is the file system for the Apple Newton platform, based on a shallow database system. The Newton considers its internal storage, and each inserted card, as a separate "store" (a volume). Any store may have either read/write "soups" (databases), or read-only objects called "packages" (Packages are roughly equivalent to applications, though they may also be storage areas or plug-ins). A soup is a simple one-table database of "entries" which may be indexed in different ways and queried by a variety of methods. Various soups store the Newton's equivalent of "documents" or "files". The Newton has a rich set of indexing and querying mechanisms for soups. One important index is the "tags" index. Soup entries may be "tagged" with some user-defined string; applications use these tags to mimic the mechanism of filing entries into "folders", each folder identified by a user-defined string. Soups have an accompanying ID symbol which represents a soup of that "kind"; this ID is assigned to a soup by the application which created it and uses it. For example, Hemlock (an Internet search tool for the Newton) maintains two soups, each with a different ID. One soup holds a list of search engines, the other holds the query results. Soups on different stores may have the same ID, meaning that they are the same kind of soup, just spread out on different cards. When applications access soups, they usually do so by querying and accessing a "union soup" object. From an application's perspective, union soups merge all the soups of a given ID on different stores into one unified soup for that ID. This happens dynamically; when a user adds or removes cards, the union soup changes automatically, each application is notified, and they update their presentation to the user to reflect this. For example, if the user pulls out a card containing a Note Pad soup, the appropriate soup entries (i.e. "notes") in the Note Pad's union soup automatically disappear, the Note Pad is notified, and its display is updated to show that these entries are now gone. Treating documents as database entries in a global union soup made Newtons very apt at handling multiple cards yanked and inserted while applications are running. There are a few global soups which all applications use; the most important one is the "System" Soup, which stores global information for applications, commonly application preferences.
  • Apple has already a robust UNIX file system in iOS. Simply it is hidden from the user. Fortunately.... Files come in thousands and you cannot manage these with a simple multi-touch. You need point&click functionality for precise data selection. Hopefully that will happen one day, but not in the immediate future....
  • I think Apple missed the point when they linked the price to the size and not to the 'mini', 'air' or 'pro' feature set because they all (should) be packing the same tech, just in a different size! Eg the 9.7 inch iPad Air should start off at the same price as the iPad mini. The price should only go up for 9.7 inch iPad Pro. Because when Apple rightly realised the market opportunity that existed, but opened a Pandora box and tried to please everyone by realising different sized iPhones and iPads, they should've kept the price the same and throw the decision to the consumer about what size they want. This way Apple could keep margins comfortable, and avoid getting themselves into a catch 22 about what price to charge.
  • Wish they'd apply this mentality to the iPhone line. I will keep paying the $100 extra to go from 6s to 6s+ but it would sure be nice not too when it simply cannot cost that much more in materials.
  • Great article Rene! I think there are two issues with iPad: one, keeping around older models to hit lower price points makes the lineup seem bloated and complicated. Also you can get 128GB storage option with the mini 4 but not with the iPad Air 2, Air 2 stops at 64GB. Why? And two, with the Pro models, one has 4GB RAM and USB 3 support, the other has True Tone display and better camera. Ok which one is considered the best, the flagship iPad then? Having feature disparity between models is confusing and makes buying decisions tougher for consumers.
  • I agree with the sentiment surrounding the confusion about which iPad is the flagship.
    I love my Air 2 and don't see a reason to upgrade to either Pro, but I recall 2013 as being the year with the best compromise between choice and simplicity. That's when the iPad Air and iPad mini 2 were released, with size being the only major differentiator. I don't mind paying extra for bigger size, but hate making significant compromises for attractive features to get the size that fits my workflow and preferred size. I'm assuming it's Apple's classic 'upsell' strategy to improve average margins, but it could be frustrating or confusing consumers to the point of putting off purchases of a new iPad with the hope that their preferred iPad size will eventually get the new features in the next iteration. Sent from the iMore App
  • IPads lineup is already very simple, the way it should be: two Pro devices and two consumer devices (classic Job's 2x2 scheme).
  • I like what you are saying but where do they go next year? At this point every new feature is internal power and pencil support. Barring the Mini getting pencil support how much can you differentiate the 9.7" iPads when the only difference is A9X to A10X? I'm sure they will throw something else in but what else is there after pencil support and screen improvements until some other major technical break through. To me it would make sense to throw whatever they can into the new Pro line (A10X?) and keep the budget model at a lower price and only upgrade the processor to the A9x but leave off pencil support and the screen improvements. Basically an Air 2 with a better processor. Just some thoughts.
  • The 9.7 inch iPad Pro was introduced with features the 12.9 inch Pro does not have, but it will as soon as the next iteration is introduced, probably by September or so. When that happens the two Pro versions will be in sync. The Mini 4 and the Air 2 may get upgraded features, but I think the most significant change will be renaming to iPad and iPad Mini, no numbering, as Rene suggested. Despite being an iOS device, the iPad has more in common with a Mac than it does an iPhone when it comes to upgrade/replacement. I expect my 2011 MacBook Air to last me another five years with a battery replacement. My iPad Mini is probably good for that long as well. Designating Pro model iPads isn't a marketing ploy. Apple has added significant capabilities to Pro devices. Most people won't find enough value in the Smart Connector or Pencil to justify the added expense. Those who do will pay extra for those properties.
  • What's your thoughts on this: Do you think iOS need to divide into iPad and iPhone versions that give the iPad features closer to the Mac? Moreover, should the non-pro iPads be more like the iPhone version to set the Pro models apart? It really doesn't fit with the OS X mentality of all Macs getting the same features of OS X but anything is possible. Personally I would love iPads to get their own version of iOS with features that will never fit an iPhone and really make the iPad feel more like a laptop replacement.
  • The iPad already has features not available on the iPhone, Smart Connector and Pencil. A bifurcated iOS makes no sense to me. In practice, Apple is making OS X more like iOS with each iteration.
  • Two lines. Pro and non-Pro. And the non-Pro line must be drastically cut in price to even remotely remain competitive. $199 for the small one (the Mini 4 small one, not the obsolete Mini 2) WITH 32 gigs. $299 for the larger one with 32 gigs. The Pro line is also too expensive as is ($600 plus $100 for pencil plus $150 for a keyboard and that's a basic 32 gig model without LTE). With tax and AppleCare +, you're over $1000 for a tablet. Sorry but that's a good $300 more than remotely acceptable. $499 would be more appropriate for the iPad Pro itself. The cramped keyboard should in no way be more than $75 and the pencil should also be $75. That's still too expensive if you're positioning it to take sales from PC Hybrids, some Macs, etc. The larger iPad should be $200 more but even that's questionable right now with its lesser camera and screen tech. And Apple desperately needs to get the price of the Mini closer to $149 for schools, again the Mini 4. The Mini 2 should be put out to pasture with the Air, it's larger twin. And critically, Apple needs to push much harder on adding capabilities to the iPad in general in terms of iOS and the Pro in particularly.
  • Apple has to do some serious work to make sure it adds sufficient keyboard functionality if it needs to truly replace the laptop. I can't even use keyboard arrow keys to navigate the from one icon to another in springboard?
    I'm working on a app, to switch to other app I just to command tab, to open a new app I will do command H and then I would like to use my keyboard arrow keys to move to the page or app icon and press enter to open the app.
  • My Air 2 is A8X and so is everybodies Rene!!!!!
  • Rene, you used to talk so much crap about all the different Samsung models, yet Apple has even more currently available. How do you like your crow? Sent from the iMore App
  • What?? Apple, in no way, shape or form, has more models of any device than Samsung.
  • I agree that there should be only two models - iPad and iPad Pro - with two sizes each, differentiated by certain features, accessories, and price. However, the biggest differentiation needs to be in iOS. Give me an iOS that works for the iPad and an iOS Pro that works for the iPad Pro. And the Pro version features some sort of workable file system or enhanced sharing, scripting capabilities, better keyboard support (including FULL support for utilities like TextExpander), and more desktop customization options. Those that need or want those features would gladly opt for a Pro model, while those that don't care (or don't know) about the extra features, would get a regular iPad.
  • Calm down :-) such an iPad will never happen because what you describe is not an iPad, it is a laptop, or to make you happy, a tablet Mac... User accessible file system requires serious multitasking: when you copy 3852 files from your tablet to your external microSD your system should not halt... and that sort of multitasking is a matter of battery and heat management first of all. With today's resources, such an iPad wouldn't even last 2 hours on battery... That will happen one day, but not in the immediate future, apparently... In the meantime the new Macbook is better for you...
  • Dividing iPads into "Pro" and "Consumer" categories makes absolutely no sense at all. The only part of the article that's true is the last part where it basically just says "things will stay the same." For starters, there would need to be a much greater difference between "pro" and "consumer" models than currently. This year's iPad "pros" are actually almost identical to the iPad "Air's". Also, pencil support will *have* to migrate at least down to the mini and there is no reason at all why it wouldn't migrate to the iPhone eventually. The iPhone is a note taking device after all and it *does* have a copy of the notes app (currently the number one app for use with the pencil and actually designed around it). Other than pencil support, the only thing differentiating the Pro is the (crappy) keyboard and slightly better sound. Secondly, there are many "Pro" users (like myself) that use the iPad mini. The mini is the only iPad that a writer can actually write on while mobile for example. All the others have to be lain down on a tabletop in a simulation of a laptop scenario. Also, it's artificial to separate writing from reading in any case because many "readers" need to mark up the text they are reading or take notes on it. Even if the mini is used just as an eReader, it still needs pencil support and all the rest. If Apple ever separates iPads into "Pro" and "consumer" it will be based on PRICE, not function. There are many excellent arguments to be made that a cheaper, PLASTIC iPad would be well-received and sell like the proverbial hotcakes. The casual "consumer" users are those that just use an iPad for games and web-browsing on the couch and those are the folks that don't want to spend a thousand bucks each year for a new one. Everyone else is already "pro."
  • "...many "readers" need to mark up the text they are reading or take notes on it. Even if the mini is used just as an eReader, it still needs pencil support and all the rest." Use a stylus on the Mini or iPhone... FiftyThree's stylus does the job. Apple Pencil requires "Pro" display for high resolution tracking. This is a precision drawing and more broadly a precision data selection tool. It is quite expensive to highlight text. The "Pro" and "consumer" iPads differ by that Apple Pencil compatible special display on the "Pro". This is not a marketing gimmick.
  • No. Pencil support does not make it Pro. He's absolutely spot on - it would have to migrate down eventually anyway. Pro is based on screen size alone. The iPad is a totally different beast to the Mac, where Pro means something a little different. Sent from the iMore App
  • Try to write on an iPad Air or Mini with Apple Pencil, it won't work. Because these screens do not support Apple Pencil. This is just a technical spec, no need to philosophize about... A technical spec which differentiates the Pro from the non-Pro... Pro signifies an iPad with different specs other than the size. Both Air and the new Pro are 9.7 inch so size is not a differentiator.
  • Let's just get to having there iPad screen sizes. All with pencil support and smart connectors. Just pick your screen size, memory, and color. Same features across them all. Sent from the iMore App
  • You didn't leave room for the iPad Pro mini that I want.
    I'm still quite delighted with my iPad mini 2 (with Retina display) and the only thing that could get me to replace this is added support for the Pencil.
  • Amen!! I'm really excited about the possibility of a mini with Pencil Support!
  • The iPad line is simple. The problem is that Apple have misnamed the Air 3. Pro is based solely on screens size. The features would have filtered through regardless. Sent from the iMore App
  • There is a very simple explanation for the frustration over the Pro moniker: They're frustrated because it's not an OS X tablet By naming it Pro, Apple is pretty clearly saying "We're not making an OS X tablet."
  • With dropping the 128K iPad Air 2 I think Apple has said where they are going - no more non-pro 9.7" Ipad. Even if they do keep the 64K ones around for a couple of more years. That means the price of an iPad just went up $100, or at least that will be true when they completely drop the iPad Air 2. Sure, you get more, but there are people who just use their Ipad for watching movies, browsing and doing emails while most of what they do with other apps is on the phone because it's always with them (me, for example). I sometimes load up a lot of movies, pushing my past 64gb storage so I need my 128. I like my iPad Air 2, but I could probably live a full life with a cheaper tablet. That's more of a consideration now that, if I want 128gb, I have to buy a Pro (yes, I know that I can still find an Air 2 at other vendors, but that won't last forever).