Thought experiment – Intel powered iPad pro
Posted on March 16th, 2015
The Apple universe runs on rumors and speculation. There has been talk of Apple eventually powering their Macs with custom Arm processors. We have yet to see this but what we have seen is an incredibly thin and small retina MacBook based on the new Intel Core M processor. There has also been a lot of rumors of a larger iPad Pro. What if instead of Apple eventually doing an Arm powered MacBook they came out with an Intel Core M powered iPad Pro?
This is just a thought experiment but let's explore this a bit. What if the new MacBook is also a test bad to develop new technologies that can be used not only in notebooks but in the tablet line as well? If Apple were to do this, what technologies would they bring to a new tablet and what would it ultimately look like?
The new Intel core M is not as high powered as people expected in the new Macbook. The new processor is incredibly small and low power though. For power users this new MacBook is not going to be powerful enough but for common uses like email and web surfing it will be perfectly fine. It is also more powerful than the Apple's own ARM based chips. What feels a bit sluggish on a notebook running a full desktop OS would be positively smoking on a tablet running iOS. By adding the very low power Intel M processor to a new larger sized iPad Apple may be able to extend the tablet category to go after power users.
Apple has spent an incredible amount of time and money developing a super thin (.88mm) 12 inch retina display. That is incredibly impressive. It is interesting that the new Macbook and iPad pro rumors both had them with a 12" screen. Although they haven't done it before I think it would make sense if Apple were to make a single screen assembly that fit both products. Now the new 12" display is 16:10 format instead of the 4:3 we are used to on an iPad, but I think 16:10 would be a good format for a tablet honestly.
Apple also spent a lot of resources making a physical keyboard is absolutely as small and thin as it could possibly be. What does this have to do with a tablet though? Well as much as we love our tablets they are still far better at consuming than producing - at least for text. If you really want to get serious work done you occasionally need to have access to a touch type keyboard. We all know this and that is why there are so many 3rd party bluetooth keyboards in the market. Some are pretty clever but they have one fatal flaw - they don't have access to any power from the iPad and so they must carry their own battery. This mean that you have 2 devices to charge and when you carry them together it is thicker and heavier than a Macbook Air - that kind of defeats the purpose. Only Apple can solve this properly, and the new ultra thin keyboard would do nicely as a superior 'type' cover similar to what Microsoft has done with the surface.
So a Laptop with a single USB port feels limited. - It felt limited when the first Air came out, but now that single port has to do double duty as both power and communication it feels worse. It will take some getting used to on a notebook - but it is standard form for a tablet. It is possible Apple will switch to USB-C for the iPad Pro and drop the lightning connector. It would give all the same advantages as lightning today, plus allow for standard USB peripherals to be used - something that would be important for a 'pro' tablet.
What's missing in this picture?
Well for the Macbook they also developed a pretty cool force sensing trackpad and also some cool haptic feedback technology. It is possible that some of this technology could make it into a new iPad, but I am pretty skeptical. Having some 'feedback' for touch events could be very nice, but the haptic control is probably a bit thick for an iPad in today's iteration. Force 'touch' sensing could be very cool but I think we are probably far away from that with the current display assembly. So for now I think both of these features are out.
What I would really like to see in an iPad Pro is an active digitizer with pressure sensing. Honestly I've expected this for years now - and the 3rd party solutions out there just don't cut it. Apple has always sold itself as the brand for the 'creative' types. I think the potential for an iPad to be a serious digital painting and graphics tool is just to big to ignore much longer. It has to hurt when big name artists tout the benefits of your competitors products due to this capability. Apple doesn't have to include the feature in all models - or at least make the stylus extra if they are concerned with cost.
If Apple were to come out with such a device it would at first glance appear that they were copying Microsoft's approach. Heck at second and third glance it would still look like a 'Surface'. That would be especially true with a removable type cover and a pressure sensitive stylus. But as Apple has proven time and time again you don't have to be 'first' you just have to be first with the right product mix and marketing at the right time. I don't believe that Apple is actively against the concept of the surface - at least not from a hardware perspective. What they disagree with is trying to use a desktop operating system on a tablet. The current success of the iPad and iOS would seem to prove them right. I don't think that adding optional 'pro' features like an removable keyboard and stylus would detract from the iPad message.
Does that mean I expect them to come out with a product like this? Not necessarily, but it does mean that it's possible given their recent technology development. I have read recent reports that iPad sales, and tablet sales in general have stalled out. This is most likely due to the trend for larger phones overlapping the tablet space. Any move towards a larger 'pro' tablet could help give the from factor new life by making them much more powerful and productive and differentiated from phablets. It could also satisfy a group of users that don't necessarily want to pay for a full Macbook (and give up the touch experience) when they can carry around something slightly smaller and lighter, that can still get the job done but at a lower price. Additionally they would only have to carry the keyboard when they needed it. For this product to be successful it would have to come in at or under $1000.
So what are the chances that Apple would come out with the product like this? Would they be willing to create something that would directly compete with the last product they just created? History has shown us that Apple is more than willing to compete with itself if it prevents their competitors from doing it. I think there is a real case to be made that tablets can serve the needs of most light portable productivity users. I also think that there really is no substitute for real touch type keyboards for writers and other heavy 'producers'. If you add the pressure sensitive digitizer to the mix I think you have a very powerful product for graphics professionals as well.