Thoughts and Observations Regarding This Week’s Apple Event Introducing the iPad Air and Retina iPad Mini

The Show Itself

There is a certain sameness to almost every Apple event. A pattern, a formula, a structure, a rhythm and pacing. Does this make them boring? In some ways, certainly, insofar as the only thing we don’t know is what they’re going to say, as opposed to how they’re going to say it. (And even then, we often have a pretty good idea what they’re going to announce, too.) Nick Bilton, writing for the NYT Bits blog argues that they’re getting stale, “Longing for the ‘Wow’ at Apple’s Product Showcases”:

Here’s the script: Timothy D. Cook comes out on stage in his signature jeans and black shirt — usually untucked. He shows off some statistics. Then other execs take the microphone to show off new software that we’ve already seen.

There are a few jokes; the audience laughs.

Then comes Philip W. Schiller, Apple’s head of marketing, who talks about new hardware and confuses everyone by touting an “Intel Xeon E5 chip,” and a “10 MB L3 cache and Turbo Boost,” and “cores” and other things most people know absolutely nothing about. (It’s as if he’s speaking Klingon.)

Then Mr. Cook is back on stage to introduce a new version of an iPad or iPhone or iPod. Then Mr. Schiller again to explain, in Klingon, the guts of the new iPad or iPhone or iPod. Then there’s a video of Jony Ive talking about the new iPad or iPhone or iPod. “It’s the best [iPad or iPhone or iPod] we’ve ever made,” Mr. Ive says in his smooth British accent.

The shows are like watching someone perform the same magic show over and over. Eventually it stops looking like magic.

But that’s not quite right. Repeatedly watching the same tricks in a magic show would grow tiresome. Apple’s events are more like watching episodes of the same TV show, but with different bits each time. The show itself grows ever more familiar, but the content changes with each episode. The URL slug on Bilton’s piece, which I suspect hints at the original headline, puts it better: “The repetition of Apple keynote presentations feels boring.”

The problem with a complaint like Bilton’s (or Marco Arment’s) is that the formula works. It puts the focus where Apple wants it: on the products being announced, not the show itself or the presenters. Sooner or later, Apple will introduce some sort of major new product, and when they do, they’ll likely cater the structure of the introduction accordingly. The iPhone introduction was unlike any previous Macworld Expo keynote. The iPad introduction used a different structure (and added a chair). If you want a new Apple event, you’re going to have to wait for a new Apple product.

In the meantime, make no mistake, Apple continues to sweat the details on these events. This year they customized the entrance to the gallery building at Yerba Buena Center, ripping out the doors in the back — just for this event — to create a sunlit open-air entrance to the post-event hands-on area.

Mavericks, iWork, and iLife Apps Going Free

Apple’s accountants had as much to do with making Mavericks and these apps free of charge as did Apple’s product marketing team. This has been a years-long effort. As the price of Mac OS X updates dropped over the last few versions — after holding steady for many years at the hard-to-believe-today price of $129 — the goal was always to get to free. Remember all the stuff from a few years ago, when the iPhone first came out, and Apple used “subscription-based accounting” for iPhone sales, because it was the only way it saw to comply with U.S. accounting regulations and also provide free software updates?

That’s all in the past now. My understanding is that it’s been a long slog to get here — here being where these apps and all OS updates are available free of charge — the details of said slog being the sort of convoluted bean-counting that would put anyone who doesn’t wear a green eyeshade to sleep. But this too — I think — is why the iLife and iWork apps are only free with the purchase of a new device and for users of previous versions. Apple’s not trying to milk money from those customers ineligible for the free versions of these apps (although, of course, they will happily keep the money). It’s simply the fallout from Apple’s accounting guidelines that they cannot simply offer these apps free of charge to everyone.

Free apps and free OS updates will benefit both Apple and its customers. Customers benefit by having access to the latest versions of these apps and the latest OS for their devices, without having to weigh whether the new features are worth the upgrade price. At yesterday’s event Tim Cook claimed 64 percent of iOS devices are already running iOS 7. How best to make Mac OS X’s running-the-latest-version number more like that of iOS? By making it free. (It helps too, that the App Store makes upgrading far easier than in the old days.)

This benefits developers to some degree as well. It’s better for developers when they can count on more users running the latest OS — it decreases fragmentation and allows them to rely upon new APIs only present in the latest versions of the OS. It’s also the case that Mavericks is an OS that helps older Macs run faster and get better battery life — Apple is forgoing revenue by not charging anything at all for Mavericks, but they are increasing the value of existing Mac hardware. Never say never, but I don’t expect that we will see a paid update to Mac OS X ever again. I think all future upgrades, no matter how significant, are going to be free of charge henceforth.

This puts Microsoft in a tight spot. Apple gives away software for free in exchange for your buying their hardware. This is not charity. It’s also in marked contrast to Google, who gives away software for free in exchange for selling your attention (and personal information) to advertisers. Apple and Google are squeezing Microsoft from both sides, and the result is that less and less perceived value in the industry resides solely in software. You can make money selling hardware (like Apple) or make money selling ads (like Google), but given the popularity of Apple’s hardware and Google’s apps and services, it’s getting harder for Microsoft to make money by selling software.

To a lesser degree, Apple might be putting the squeeze on iOS and Mac developers as well, for the same reason. Apple is reinforcing the perception that incredibly deep apps, apps that in some cases have been three or four years in the making, “should be” free. Why does your app cost even $1 if the cost of an entire office suite, running on both my Mac and iOS devices, is free of charge? That’s what I worry users will ask. One would hope they’d see the difference between Apple’s financial situation and that of the indie developer, but the truth is that many — maybe most? — people think that everyone who writes apps for the App Store works for Apple. (I know that’s hard to believe, but ask your neighborhood app developer next time you see them.)

iPad Air and iPad Mini

Calling the new full-size model the iPad Air says it all. In one year, the iPad Air has dropped 30 percent of its weight, narrowed considerably, and doubled in performance. A weight drop like that is significant for any product, but especially so for a device that is primarily used while being held in your hands. It’s startling when first you hold one.

The new Mini is an even more impressive year-over-year update. Last year’s original Mini was billed as “every inch an iPad”, but what they meant by that was that it was every inch an iPad 2. The original Mini’s non-retina display and A5 chip put it one generation behind the iPad 3/4. My expectation was thus that this year’s Mini would maybe get a retina display, but regardless of display would get an A6 processor — more or less keeping it about a year behind the 9.7-inch iPad state of the art. I was wrong.

From what I’ve seen, and what Apple has said, the only differences between the iPad Air and the Mini are the screen size and $100. Same performance. Same storage capacity options. Same cameras. This is the iPad Mini I expected to see in October 2014, not 2013. The price for the new models has gone up, but given that the new Mini has achieved technical parity with the Air, and that the original iPad Mini remains available in a 16 GB configuration for just $299, the Mini’s pricing structure makes more sense than last year’s oddball starting price of $329.

I’m an iPad Mini convert. After just a few weeks last year, my Mini became my one and only iPad. My iPad usage is mostly for reading, and not much for typing. The smaller size and lighter weight just fit my usage better. I went into this year’s event assuming I’d walk out wanting to buy the new Mini. But the new Air is so much lighter, and thus so much more amenable to holding it in just one hand, that I walked out of the event completely unsure which one I want. In fact, the new Air (469 grams) is closer in weight to the new Mini (331 grams) than it is to the old iPad 3/4 (650 grams) that it replaces. (Those weights are all for the Wi-Fi-only models.)

Both models are great updates from last year, but the result is that what makes them great updates (the Air’s reduction in size and weight; the Mini’s retina display and performance parity) also make it a much harder decision to choose which one you want. Many readers have asked whether the Mini’s slight increases in thickness (from 7.2 to 7.5 mm) and weight (from 308 to 331 grams for the Wi-Fi model) are noticeable. From my time in the hands-on area, I’d say no, the differences are negligible (especially with regard to thickness — we’re talking about one-hundredth of an inch), but the fact that the retina Mini got heavier at all only serves to further complicate the decision of which new iPad to buy.

The new iPads strike me as prime examples of Tim Cook’s leadership. We — or at least I — largely celebrate Apple’s design leadership. But Apple’s amazing success story over the past 15 years is also very much a story of operational excellence. It’s not just about making cool new hardware — it’s about making cool new hardware in very large numbers, with high reliability and affordable prices. I had the chance to speak to Cook for a few minutes in the hands-on area Tuesday, and when he asked me what I thought, I told him that I was surprised they were able to take the Mini to retina and the A7 in just one year, with no appreciable difference in weight or thickness to accommodate a larger battery, in contrast to what happened with the iPad 3/4 just 18 months ago. Cook smiled, and said something to the effect of, “We’ve learned a lot since then.”1

The fact that the new iPad Mini isn’t shipping until “later in November” (translation: the end of November) shows just how tight this upgrade was. That’s the latest a device could possibly ship and still be available for holiday sales. Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy barely made it under the slowly sliding door before it shut, then reached back and snatched his whip just in time? That’s the retina iPad Mini making the lineup in time for Christmas.

To take nothing away from Jony Ive and the rest of Apple’s designers, there really wasn’t much to design about the new retina Mini. It’s the same external design as last year’s. What makes it a tremendous year-over-year update are the internal components: the display, the cameras, and that A7. Last year’s Mini was a triumph of design; this year’s update is a triumph of operational efficiency.

What the iPad Air and Mini lack, on the other hand, I believe offers some clues as to where the iPhone 5S is component constrained. Most obviously: no Touch ID sensor. It could be that Apple has kept Touch ID exclusive to the iPhone 5S primarily as a marketing move, but that doesn’t sound like Apple to me. My somewhat informed guess is that those sensors are both supply and engineering constrained — Apple needs all of them simply to meet demand for the 5S, and engineering-wise, it was a challenge just to work them into one device this year. The same goes for the 5S’s amazing camera.2 It’s only in the context of the iPad Air and retina iPad Mini that Apple’s repeated use of “most forward-thinking iPhone yet” to describe the 5S makes sense. The 5S isn’t just the most advanced iPhone, it’s the most advanced iOS device, period.3 4

And then there’s the iPad 2. Readers have inundated me with the same questions about this. Why did Apple keep it? Because people are still buying it. Why did they keep the price at $399? Because people are still buying it.

Why would anyone buy it? That’s a better question. Two groups that I know are buying it are businesses using iPads for things like cash registers (or any other situation where the iPad is used in a kiosk-like situation), and schools. For the cash register scenario, it’s perfectly rational for the business to want the cheapest full-size iPad they can get. They don’t need retina, they don’t need more than 16 GB of storage, and they don’t need cutting edge performance. For schools, the logic seems unclear to me. Why not buy the iPad Mini instead? For grade school children in particular, it seems like a better-sized device. But what I’ve been told is that schools want full-size iPads and they want the cheapest ones they can get. So: the $399 iPad 2 is with us for another year.

Update: One reason schools only buy full-sized iPads: testing regulations that require tablet displays to measure at least 9.5 inches.

As for pricing overall, I think concerns that iPads are “too expensive” are overblown. The same was said last year, and the year before that. The tech and business press frequently compare iPads’ prices and specs to those of high-end Android-based competitors — from Samsung, Google, and Amazon — and find the iPads lacking. How many pieces were written last year arguing that the iPad Mini, with its non-retina display and $329 starting price, was incongruously overpriced compared to Nexus and Kindle Fire devices with retina-caliber pixel densities and prices under (sometimes well under) $300? Lots. So far so good — it’s fair to make such comparisons. (Although often left unsaid in such comparisons are the significant size differences between the Mini’s 7.9-inch 4:3 aspect ratio display and the 7-inch 16:9 aspect ratio displays of its ostensible competitors. Rene Ritchie had a good piece at iMore last week explaining how this matters.)

But where these comparisons go awry is when they are conflated with tablet market share numbers showing Android devices, as a whole, making significant gains. As Benedict Evans argued this week, the rise in Android tablet sales has not been driven by the high-end would-be-iPad-competitors from Amazon, Google, and Samsung, but by profoundly cheap “$75-$150 black generic Chinese Android tablets” that are seemingly used primarily for video consumption. Evans calls them “the featurephones of tablets”, and argues they compete with televisions just as much, if not more, as they do with iPads.

The iPad does not have competition in the way that the iPhone does. Tens of millions of people use high-end Android phones — largely Samsung’s — in much the same way iPhone users use theirs. There just aren’t that many people — yet? — using Kindle Fires, Galaxy Tabs, Nexuses, or Surfaces as alternatives to the iPad. Thus the massive discrepancies between the iPad’s market share and usage share numbers.

Two Sizes of the Same New Device

Last year, the iPad 4 and original iPad Mini felt like two different devices. This year, the iPad Air and retina Mini feel like two sizes of the same device — more like the difference between the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs than the difference between MacBook Airs and the MacBook Pros. If anything, the new iPads are even more similar to each other than the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs are. Again, I’m pretty sure the only differences between the new iPad Airs and Minis are size/weight and $100.

This, in turn, gives me hope regarding any potential move Apple might make next year with regard to a larger-display iPhone. What I don’t want to see is a single iPhone 6 with a larger display (and correspondingly larger physical size). What I’m hoping for is that, if Apple produces a larger iPhone, it debuts alongside a 4-inch display iPhone with the exact same specs — same A8 processor, same better-than-the-5S camera, same storage capacities. Same everything, except for the size of the display.

If Apple can do this with the iPad, why not the iPhone too? The only complication I can think of is that with the iPad Air and Mini, both sport the same pixel count, 2048 × 1536. I’m not sure that an 1136 × 640 display at a bigger display size will satisfy those who desire a physically larger iPhone.

New MacBook Pros

The updated MacBook Pros pose a simpler story than the new iPads. Choosing between a MacBook Pro and MacBook Air is, to my eyes at least, far easier than choosing between an iPad Air and iPad Mini.

If your primary concerns are performance and display quality, you want a MacBook Pro. If your primary concerns are battery life and weight, you want a MacBook Air. Again, though, Apple continues to narrow those gaps. The latest Airs are faster than ever before. The brand-new Pros are thinner, lighter, lower-priced, and get better battery life (9 hours for the 13-inch Pro, according to Apple, which quite frankly sounds amazing to my ears; it doesn’t seem like that long ago when “4.5 hours” of battery life was state-of-the-art).

And one last thought, circling back to the iPad Air and Mini. If the iPad Air and Mini are sort of like the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs, and there is no longer a model named just-plain “iPad”, does the iPad Air moniker set the stage for an iPad Pro? I’m thinking yes. Maybe not soon, but soon enough.

iWork

There’ve been a lot of complaints this week regarding functional regressions in the Mac versions of the new iWork apps. The disappointment is justifiable; no one likes having features they rely upon removed in a major software update. But given Apple’s recent history — Final Cut Pro X and iMovie 08 to name two examples — no one should be surprised, either. I don’t think anyone at Apple took these functional regressions in the Mac version of the iWork apps lightly, but they are no mistake, either.

The bottom line as I see it: you need to have clear priorities, and Apple’s highest priority here was clearly cross-platform parity for iPhone, iPad, web, and Mac. No other office platform in the world has that — complete parity between native apps for phone, tablet, desktop, and a web app. Other companies have different priorities; Microsoft, for example, has feature-completeness built into its DNA. A version of Microsoft Office for Windows that removed functionality to achieve parity with the mobile version is unimaginable.

But whenever you have clear priorities, secondary and tertiary features have to be sacrificed. I think Apple’s continuing commitment to the Mac is clear — everything from hardware like the all-new Mac Pro and a MacBook lineup that leads the industry, to the now annual updates to Mac OS X. But iOS is Apple’s primary platform, and it’s better for iOS to have the entire iWork suite at parity than the previous situation, where the iOS versions of the apps supported only a subset of what the Mac versions did.

Also, the updated version of iWork for iCloud is pretty slick, standing in contradiction to the rule of thumb that Apple stinks at web stuff. But what’s the point of iWork for iCloud? I think it’s two-fold. First, it’s effectively the Windows version of iWork, without Apple having to write an actual native Windows version. It’s not going to set the Windows world on fire, but it’s not intended to. It’s there so that iPhone and iPad users with Windows PCs can view and edit their documents created on iOS devices. Second, as with any web app, it’s an excellent “universal access” even for Mac users. Store a document in iCloud, and in a pinch, even without your Mac or iPad handy, you can open it from any PC or Mac anywhere in the world. It also seems to me that this week’s update to iWork for iCloud is a rather amazing step forward from the version that debuted at WWDC back in June — a tremendous amount of progress in just four months.

The New Mac Pro

The $2999 starting price is about what I’d expected. Anyone put off by the price probably doesn’t need what the Mac Pro offers over and above, say, an iMac or a decked out Mac Mini.

The big disappointment for me is that Apple did not announce 4K Cinema Displays to go along with it. Why make a machine capable of driving three 4K displays but not make the displays? This is the machine that will take desktop computing to the retina era, but I want Apple to make the displays too, not just the machine that powers them.

The Tim Cook Era

The march of time is inexorable. Product by product, keynote by keynote, we are seeing the post-Steve Jobs Apple emerge. The “This never would have happened if Jobs were still around” vein of Apple punditry will be with us for decades to come. Most of it is deeply misguided. But some of it rings true. Apple today is a different company than it would be if Jobs were still there. No one denies this, inside or outside the company.

But what are those differences? I’m going to go out on a limb and name one: iOS 7.

I’m not going to pretend to know Jobs’s taste — no one could, that’s what made Steve Jobs Steve Jobs — but I can certainly make a guess, and my guess is that he would not have supported this direction. I don’t think I’m saying anything here we haven’t all thought, regardless of what we each think of the iOS 7 look and feel individually. This is neither damning nor praising iOS 7. But I do think it’s a tangible sign that Tim Cook means it when he says that Jobs’s advice to him was never to ask “What would Steve have done?” but instead to simply ask “What is best for Apple?” and judge for himself.

But the hardware Apple showed yesterday — everything from the assembled-in-the-USA Mac Pro to the new iPads — that, I think Steve Jobs would have simply loved. Apple has pulled off some major engineering and design advances. Jobs took inordinate pride when he unveiled the A4 system-on-a-chip during the introduction of the original iPad in 2010. Doing custom silicon in-house was a new direction for Apple, and they’ve continually upped their efforts in this regard. Each successive generation — A5, A6, A7 — has been more customized, and less like the off-the-shelf chipsets and components used by competing device makers. In short, Apple’s chip design team is firing on all cylinders. How did the iPad Air get so much thinner and lighter in just one year? How did the iPad Mini gain a retina display and quadruple in performance with almost no increase in weight to accommodate a larger battery in just one year? The answer to both questions is the same: the A7. The A7 is an “only Apple could do this” piece of technology, and Jobs would have exulted in it.

And I keep thinking about this old video from 1990 of a NeXT computer factory in California, “The Machine to Build the Machines”. Watch that, then read this brief piece from Fortune back at the same time, and it’s pretty hard not to see Apple’s new assembled-in-USA Mac Pro as the culmination of the same dream.

I doubt the Mac Pro is the only product Apple wants to assemble like this.


  1. I was hanging around the room with MG Siegler at the time, when Cook came by and stopped to talk. This was the same conversation that MG wrote about, where, when MG professed to being unsure which iPad he wanted more, Cook smoothly replied, laughing, “Well, you want to buy both.” He may come from operations, but Cook, like any great CEO, knows how to do sales, too. 

  2. I noticed during Apple’s promotional video showing how people are using iPads across the world that there were numerous segments showing people using them as cameras. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: as silly as it can seem, the time for snickering at people using tablets as cameras (and I’m as guilty as anyone) is over. 

  3. One other thing the 5S offers that the new iPads do not: a gold option. My understanding is that they tried it, and it just didn’t look good bigger. It works on the iPhone because the iPhone is so much smaller — more like jewelry. 

  4. What makes the lack of Touch ID on this year’s iPads slightly more disappointing than it otherwise would have been is iCloud Keychain, with which Apple strongly recommends you use a passcode on your device. If, as Apple claimed last month, more than half of smartphone owners have no passcode on their devices, surely the number is even higher for tablets. iCloud Keychain is a good reason to use a passcode on your iPad even if you had never done so before, and Touch ID removes most of the friction incurred when switching from not using a passcode to using one. 

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