Apple's iPad Air has received overwhelming praise as the best full-size tablet you can buy, and it'll likely rack up sales records for this past holiday season. And why not? It's lighter, thinner, smaller, and faster than its predecessor. In fact, it's so "impossibly light" that Jason Snell described handling it as being "like picking up a movie prop." Thus the obvious rationale for adding the word Air to the iPad's moniker.
Still, it's tempting to consider a potential second implication of the name change. Apple sells another product with "Air" in its name: the MacBook Air. It's marketed as an entry-level laptop, with the MacBook Pro as the alternative for those who crave more power and higher-end options. While predicting Apple's future product releases is often a fool's errand, I believe the introduction of an iPad Air suggests that an "iPad Pro" is in the works for 2014.
That's the easy prediction. The hard one is describing exactly what an iPad Pro might be. In particular, how would Apple distinguish an iPad Pro from the iPad Air and iPad mini? Understanding that I am about to go so far out on a limb that it might well break beneath me, here's my speculation.
Will an iPad Pro have a larger display than the iPad Air?
This would almost certainly be the primary distinguishing feature of an iPad Pro. How much larger? There are rumors that Apple has already settled on a 12.9 inch display. This strikes me as just about right. It places the iPad Pro at around the same display size as 13-inch MacBooks. Furthermore, it would allow for a clear separation between the three iPad models: 7.9 inch mini; 9.7 inch Air; and 12.9 inch Pro.
Will an iPad Pro include Touch ID?
Apple's Touch ID fingerprint detection debuted this past fall on the iPhone 5s. The 5s remains the only Apple product to include this feature thus far, and while many people had hoped to see Touch ID on the iPad Air, that didn't happen. Apple might well reserve the option for the debut of an iPad Pro, but if so, it will almost certainly be only a temporary distinction. Within a year or two, I anticipate that Touch ID will be included in almost all iOS devices.
Will an iPad Pro be a laptop-tablet hybrid?
There's been, of late, much debate about the ideal mobile computer: If you can have only one, should it be a laptop or a tablet? Or is neither sufficient on its own? A potential solution to this dilemma is for one device to serve as both, as Microsoft has attempted with the Surface.
Some have envisioned an iPad Pro that goes in this same direction, functioning as an iPad-MacBook hybrid. At one point, I imagined a hybrid that would have a detachable display (as opposed to, say, a 180-degree swiveling display). When the display was attached to the keyboard, it would function as a MacBook running OS X. When detached, it would instead serve as a touchscreen iPad running iOS. While some might see this as combining the advantages of both worlds, others view it as merging the drawbacks of each platform. Apple is clearly in the latter camp. At Apple's October media event, Tim Cook said:
“Our competition is different. They’re confused. They chased after netbooks. Now they’re trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs.”
Cook went on to assert that Apple has no intention of going in that direction. In other words, despite predictions of an OS X/iOS hybrid device this year, my expectation is that an iPad Pro would remain purely an iOS device.
Will an iPad Pro include a physical keyboard?
Although an iPad Pro might not be a hybrid, it needn't eschew a physical keyboard altogether. Keyboard cases and covers for iPads, from companies such as Logitech and Zagg, are already popular options, and it's easy to see why. If you do a lot of typing, a physical keyboard goes a long way toward making that task easier.
Make no mistake, however; there is a downside here. Even the thinnest, lightest keyboard cover adds significant heft to an iPad. And a keyboard case too often gets in the way when you want to use an iPad for tasks where no keyboard is required. Still, for the intended market of an iPad Pro (more on this in a moment), a physical keyboard would probably be a welcome addition.
Then again, Apple could continue to market its Bluetooth stand-alone keyboard as an iPad Pro accessory, leaving keyboard cases and covers to third-parties. However, I predict that Apple will offer something new, such as a keyboard case and/or keyboard cover that's specific to the iPad Pro.
Will an iPad Pro have Pro-specific hardware features?
For me, this is the biggest question of all. Will an iPad Pro simply be an iPad Air with a larger display? If so, I'll be surprised and disappointed. For an iPad Pro to carve out a niche for itself, I believe it needs to differ in some more significant way.
Of the features I'd most like to see, the top one would be external connectivity. In particular, an iPad Pro should expand beyond the ubiquitous Lightning connector, offering a fully functional USB and/or Thunderbolt port. As I have written previously, this would allow for options such as directly connecting an external drive to the iPad, which is essential to enable full local backups without requiring a Mac. A USB port would also make it much more practical to access peripherals such as portable scanners. I know the future is all about wireless connectivity, but we're not there yet.
Unfortunately, given Apple's history of avoiding any moves in this direction--by restricting access to file storage on iOS devices as well as keeping ports to a minimum on all Apple computers--I have little confidence that the company will implement such a change.
If not external ports, then what? I don't know. In the end, this has me thinking that an iPad Pro could turn out to be little more than a larger iPad Air after all.
Who would want a larger iPad?
At this point, I can imagine many readers throwing up their collective hands, decrying: "This makes no sense. The iPad market is moving toward smaller displays, not larger ones. The iPad mini's market share continues to grow. It's expected to eclipse the sales of the Air. No one wants an iPad that is even less portable than the iPad Air."
Excellent points that are hard to argue with. Still, I see a potential audience for a larger iPad. Apple could target it at iPad users who value a larger display more than maximum portability. If you plan to use an iPad primarily in just one or two locations, with an emphasis on productivity tasks, you might fit the profile. Bear in mind that, even with a 13-inch display, a hypothetical iPad Pro qualifies as portable; it would still likely be smaller and lighter than a MacBook Air.
Could an iPad Pro suffice as Mac replacement?
The Web is overflowing with articles about the shift away from traditional computers and toward tablets. For a significant minority of users, a tablet is already their primary or only computing device. An iPad Pro would likely further that trend.
Still, for the vast majority of pro users, with their emphasis on work and productivity over leisure and consumption, a Mac would likely remain essential for the foreseeable future. Yes, you can get work done with an iPad; that debate has largely been settled. And, as this Apple video makes clear, there are already many "work" situations where an iPad functions better than a MacBook.
Still, there's no way any iPad can compete with the raw power of a Mac Pro or even a top-end iMac. At least not yet. Until an iPad can run Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, Photoshop CS, BBEdit, Terminal, and other "pro" apps; until an iPad's touchscreen interface is as effective as a Mac's trackpad for working with these apps; until iOS adds features that close the file system gap with OS X; and until you can develop iOS apps on an iOS device, pro users will continue to need Macs.
That aside, an iPad Pro would up the ante. Accelerating a trend that has already begun, many desktop Mac owners would potentially choose an iPad over a laptop as their secondary computer. For an increasing number of non-pro users, an iPad will suffice as their only computer. Whatever an iPad Pro turns out to be--even if it turns out to be more rumor than reality--the iPad itself will remain at the core of Apple's future.