Late last year, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) introduced the first iPad Pro, a behemoth of a tablet with a 12.9-inch display, support for the Apple Pencil, and blazing-fast internals. Then, in March of 2016, the company introduced a new 9.7-inch iPad Pro that brought essentially all of the goodness of the 12.9-inch version to a more manageable form factor, as well as a couple of new technologies.
In particular, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro features a more sophisticated display. The display supports a wider color gamut. This, Apple claims, "gives iPad Pro up to 25 percent greater color saturation than previous iPad models."
Additionally, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro comes with what is marketed as a true tone display. This, Apple says, uses "advanced four-channel ambient light sensors to automatically adapt the color and intensity of the display to match the light in [the user's] environment."
I believe that, because the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is missing these features present on the 9.7-inch model, customers could be less interested in the 12.9-inch iPad Pro than they would be if these products were at feature parity. Will Apple introduce a new 12.9-inch iPad Pro this year to put the larger, more expensive model back on top from a technical perspective? Let's take a closer look.
What a refresh could bring
I don't think that Apple would refresh the 9.7-inch model so quickly, particularly as the current version is, in my view, far and away the best 10-inch class tablet currently on the market. If Apple were to put out a new model this year, it would probably only be a 12.9-inch model.
Apple could update this model with a true tone, wide color gamut display. The iDevice maker could also include a faster A10X processor, which would bring additional computing/graphics performance over the prior model. Additionally, Apple could bring the 12-megapixel rear-camera sensor from the 9.7-inch model over to a newer 12.9-inch version.
Such a device would represent a solid improvement over the current model, and could help boost sales of the larger Pro, at least until the 9.7-inch model is refreshed again. Further, with a newer 12.9-inch model on the market, Apple could discount the current generation 12.9-inch models, perhaps making the product category accessible to more potential customers.
Apple might just wait to refresh both iPad Pros early next year
Apple could refresh the 12.9-inch model later this year, and then put out a new 9.7-inch model in the spring of 2017. This would be what Apple did with the prior-generation iPad Pros, but it does create a slightly uncomfortable situation in which one model becomes "obsolete" relative to the other for a roughly six-month period.
A way to solve this particular problem would be for Apple to simply wait until the spring of 2017 to release refreshed 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch models side by side. This way, Apple could ensure that the two models are at feature parity, simplifying the buying decision for potential customers.
The downside to this is that the current 12.9-inch iPad Pro would go for nearly a year-and-a-half without an update. If the 12.9-inch iPad Pro represented a large portion of Apple's iPad business, then this might be unacceptable; but that's unlikely to be the case, so holding off until the spring to refresh both models seems acceptable.