According to a pre-publication note in DigiTimes, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is preparing to launch three new iPad models in the first half of 2017. The note, which doesn't include too many details, says that in the first quarter of 2017 -- this quarter -- Apple will begin producing what it refers to as a "9.7-inch iPad with a friendly price range."
Then, in the second quarter, Apple is expected to begin producing two flagship products: an updated 12.9-inch iPad Pro and a 10.5-inch iPad. The note doesn't refer to it as an "iPad Pro," curiously enough.
Apple's iPad business has been struggling for quite some time, with multiple years of unit declines. To put things in perspective, Apple shipped nearly 68 million iPads in its fiscal 2014; that figure plunged to 54.9 million in fiscal 2015 and then to 45.6 million in fiscal 2016.
Revenue, too, has struggled as well, with iPad-related revenues dropping from $30.3 billion in 2014 to $23.2 billion in 2015, and then again to $20.6 billion in 2016.
Apple obviously isn't going to give up on this product line, so its best course of action is to continue to invest in building excellent products to try to stimulate demand -- or, more pessimistically, stem the rate of demand declines.
Let's take a closer look at what we should expect from these new iPad models, and what they could mean for Apple's iPad business.
The cheaper 9.7-inch iPad
Today's 9.7-inch iPad offerings consist of the discounted iPad Air 2 and the pricier 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The latter has a faster processor than the former (A9X vs A8X), superior wide-color True Tone display, improved cameras, support for the Apple Pencil, and support for Apple's smart keyboard.
Previously, KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said that the cheaper 9.7-inch iPad will incorporate an Apple A9 chip manufactured by Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF). The use of the A9 chip in the low-cost 9.7-inch model, rather than the A9X that's currently featured inside the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, should make the device cheaper to manufacture.
Additionally, by using the A9 in the cheaper model, Apple will be able to market a larger performance delta between the low-cost 9.7-inch iPad and the pricier 10.5-inch iPad and 12.9-inch iPad Pro.
It will be interesting to see how else Apple de-features the cheaper 9.7-inch iPad to both save costs and encourage upsell to the 10.5-inch or 12.9-inch models. Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard support seem likely candidates for the chopping block here.
In terms of impact on Apple's iPad business, it's generally a good thing to deliver more value for the money with new products at a regular clip, but this doesn't seem likely to be a game changer for the iPad business.
The newer 10.5-inch and 12.9-inch models
The more interesting products will almost certainly be the higher-end 10.5-inch iPad and 12.9-inch iPad Pro. These should include faster A10X processors, potentially upgraded display technology, and -- in the case of the 10.5-inch model -- a newer design or form factor.
The current 12.9-inch iPad Pro launched in November 2015, so it's getting quite long in the tooth – regular device improvements are generally needed to catalyze demand. The good news is that if Apple can deliver a worthwhile refresh, it should be able to boost demand for its jumbo-sized iPad model.
The real star of the show, though, is likely to be the 10.5-inch model. It's been a long time since Apple has fundamentally changed the look and feel of its iPad models, but that looks set to change with this product.
For one thing, Apple is moving from a 9.7-inch display to a 10.5-inch display, an interesting change. Beyond that, the device is rumored to have very thin bezels, in sharp contrast to the very large ones found on the current 9.7-inch iPad Air/iPad Pro models.
The device may have a significantly improved aesthetic, which could help jump-start customer interest.
Additionally, if Apple includes the "faster display technology" Bloomberg mentioned last year, then this could really transform the user experience, as high refresh-rate displays make things so much smoother.
Apple's iPad business could get a nice boost in the second quarter from these new products. Additionally, the buzz that these products may potentially generate could help keep people interested in Apple ahead of the launch of its next-generation iPhone models in the fall.