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Apple Inc.'s iPad Marketing Problem

By Ashraf Eassa - Dec 1, 2017 at 4:13PM

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Without a change, the tech titan risks having its iPad lineup look perpetually behind its iPhone offerings.

Back in June, Apple (AAPL 1.62%) introduced a new pair of iPad Pro tablets -- one with a 10.5-inch display and one with a 12.9-inch display. At the heart of both tablets is a processor known as the A10X Fusion. The A10X Fusion is a larger, more powerful version of the A10 Fusion chip that Apple first introduced with the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus smartphones.

Then, in September, Apple launched new iPhone models powered by a chip that Apple dubbed the A11 Bionic. The A11 Bionic delivered better performance in CPU tasks than did the A10X Fusion, though the A10X Fusion still has the edge in graphics capabilities.

Apple's iPad Pro on the left, and its iPhone 7 on the right.

Image source: Apple.

From a marketing perspective, though, the iPads appear to have dated technology, since the respective nomenclatures indicate that the chips inside of the latest iPhones are a generation ahead of those found inside of the latest iPads.

The situation also doesn't seem like it's set to get better anytime soon. According to a recent report in Bloomberg, Apple apparently isn't planning to release an updated iPad Pro until sometime in the second half of 2018.

In fact, the exact wording is that the new iPads will come "a little more than a year after the last major iPad Pro upgrade." This suggests a launch in July or possibly even later.

If that report is correct, Apple may have an even trickier marketing situation on its hand regarding chip tech, as the new iPhones with Apple's A12 chips are expected to launch in September 2018.

Here's how Apple got in this situation in the first place and here's how Apple can get out of it.

What happened?

A while back, Apple would introduce new iPhones early in the fall and then it'd follow those phones up with new iPads slightly later in the fall.

For example, the A8-powered iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus came out in September 2014 and the A8X-powered iPad Air 2 launched in October 2014. Additionally, the A9-powered iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus launched in September 2015, with the A9X-powered iPad Pro 12.9-inch launching shortly thereafter in November 2015.

The wheels fell off the proverbial bus with the A10/A10X generation. Apple introduced the A10-powered iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus in September 2016, but the A10X-powered iPad Pro came out in June 2017.

Apple's iPhone 8 running an intense 3D game.

Image source: Apple.

The A10 chip was built using a then-mature 16-nanometer manufacturing technology, but the A10X was manufactured using a newer and more advanced 10-nanometer manufacturing technology. This represented a departure from prior practice, in which the iPad chips would be built using the same manufacturing technology as their iPhone-bound cousins.

It's not clear if the use of 10-nanometer tech was the reason for the extremely late launch, though. My guess is that the use of 10 nanometer for A10X would've been responsible for a delay to, say, the March/April time frame, but that other issues (probably the display, since this represented by far the biggest generational technology improvement) pushed the launch out to June.

How Apple can fix it

At this point, I think Apple's best chance of trying to realign the chip technologies in its iPads and iPhones -- if that's something the company is interested in doing, anyway -- is to skip out on doing an A11X chip altogether.

Now, from a marketing perspective, this will -- again -- be a bit tricky. If a hypothetical A12X-based iPad Pro were to launch after Apple's 2018 iPhone models do, then that'd work perfectly. However, since Apple's iPhone is by far its most important product line, launching an A12X-based iPad in, say, July or August, before an A12-powered iPhone hits the market, is a no-go.

Ultimately, Apple's best bet is to go back to a launch schedule whereby it introduces new iPhones in September and then new iPads sometime later in the fall. Otherwise, Apple risks having its iPads seem as though they are perpetually powered by out-of-date chip technology.

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