I did mean to write two posts about non-Apple related things in the past few weeks, but they will have to wait.
In the meantime, in anticipation of much gnashing of keyboards and dashed expectations next week (though I think this will be muted, as we’re at the ‘wow’ part of the cycle rather than 2011’s evolutionary iterations), I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is and commit to some predictions for what to expect in the iPad 3, which is sure to be announced at Apple’s press event at the Yerba Buena centre on March 7. There are already numerous papers and pundits putting forward their own predictions (Sky is even taking bets on it), so having played the Apple rumours game for nearly a decade, I’ll try to distill which ones are reasonable, which are wishful and which are absolutely off-the-wall crazy. Of course, please take all this with a grain of salt as they simply reflect my own expectations filtered through information I’ve read that I consider to be reasonable or reliable.
First off, I think three things are all but certain - given the competitive landscape and recent hardware leaks, I think there will finally be a ‘Retina’ display with a 2048x1536 resolution, double that of the current iPad (this qualifies as the biennial ‘wow’ for the iPad, given the disappointment many had with the the iPad 2 retaining the same screen as the original iPad last year). This is a pretty crazy proposition when you think about it in isolation - you will now be able to carry around a paper-sized display at a resolution better than 1080p (or ‘Full HD’ as it’s called), better than your fancy 55 inch LED TV. But it seems that this is the moment for it, and quite frankly I think this will be the killer feature that will sell a considerable number of iPad 3’s (as if Apple needed any help with that).
The Retina display may have some cost implications, and will almost certainly require a considerable increase in processing power. This in turn has power consumption implications. Accordingly, the second certainty is that the iPad 3 will have an improved processor, likely to be called the ‘A5X’. It’s difficult to say whether this will be a Dual or Quad Core processor, as the pipeline for Quad Core mobile processors is still in flux, and there exist some Dual Core processors that are newer and more efficient than the most recent Quad Cores (and more likely to be used in an A5X processor than an ‘A6’). Time will tell what specific choice Apple has made, though one would assume that that choice would be influenced by the power management required to ensure that battery life is not sacrificed considerably in light of the greater demands of the retina display.
Third, I think it reasonable to assume that the iPad 3 will have at least one improved camera. The cameras on the iPad 2 were certainly a feature that many had been clamouring for given their omission in the original iPad, however they were of pretty average quality when compared to the almost point-and-shoot quality of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. I doubt the iPad will be given quite the same grunt as the iPhone 4S’s 8MP camera, but I would think that some of the improved optics and a somewhat improved sensor would be brought to the iPad. While the iPad already does HD video, it would be nice to have a better resolution for stills photos, so I’d hope that it would get a 5MP stills camera at least - but this may be wishful. Similarly, you would think there would be some room for improving the front camera to HD resolution for Facetime (but not stills), but this also remains to be seen given bandwidth ceilings have not yet jumped sufficiently to make Facetime HD a commonly useful feature.
So what else do I think is likely, but not really certain, to be found in the iPad 3? First, there is the typical issue of capacity - the iPad’s storage has stayed static at 16, 32 and 64GB since its launch, and you can finally get the same capacities on an iPhone 4S. Given the iPad’s size and the greater amount of space needed for 1080p movies, one would imagine that the maximum storage capacity would be bumped to 128GB. I wonder if 100GB is a bit of a psychological barrier that Apple has been reluctant to break for fear of cannibalising MacBook sales (certainly that has been the case with its iPods, which took quite some time to break 100GB and which have been static at 120-160GB for the past few years). Nevertheless, this would again appear to be the time to cross that bridge. I’m not as confident that we’ll see movement at the other size-points - although I think the bottom end should be raised to 32GB, we may see a similar structure to the iPod Touch, with a 16GB entry model, 64GB mid-range and a 128GB top-end model.
Then there is the question of LTE. Carriers the world over are scrambling to put in place faster LTE ‘4G’ mobile broadband networks, but these are still not common place. Despite this, several carriers have specified that they will only be promoting handsets / devices with LTE capabilities, making the omission of LTE on the iPad 3 a potential liability. Nevertheless I think we may not see LTE on the iPad models revealed on March 7 - simply because the chips required may not be ready for prime time - but that they may still make an appearance in this generation, possibly an intermediate update to the current iPad models alongside the ‘iPhone 5’ launch later this year (and you can safely put money at that being LTE-ready).
In addition, we may see an improved wireless and bluetooth implementation, but we will certainly not see any other changes to the I/O - there will be no Thunderbolt, USB or memory card slot. While I can see the case for the nearly decade-old dock connector being superseded in the near future by a technology that takes advantage of Thunderbolt, it is by no means widespread enough for that to be a viable option just as yet. On the other hand, it amazes me that people still seem to think that Apple will put any non-dock connector based USB or card I/O on any of its iOS devices (except the Apple TV). iOS is necessarily a closed system, and that will not be changing any time soon - it is more likely to expect to see Flash on iOS before a USB port. In the meantime, with wireless sync finally settled across the line, it seems unlikely that Apple would want to start bringing cables back in the mix for now. Further, while NFC (near-field communication, which allows credit cards to be tapped instead of swiped) is likely to make an appearance on iOS devices in the future (Apple would be crazy not to enter the mobile payments area given its leading customer database and device penetration in the market), I would expect to see NFC on an iPhone first, and possibly not even this year.
While we won’t see any significant changes to iOS (expect iOS 6 to be announced at WWDC in June, with it rolled out in advance of the ‘iPhone 5’ - or whatever it is called - later in the year), it’s probably reasonable to expect Apple to continue to roll out Siri across its product line - Siri was not shoehorned into pre-iPhone 4S devices due to processing concerns and some degree of product differentiation, both of which are not concerns for the iPad 3.
Also, one further interesting tidbit in the invitations to the press event on March 7 is that there is something to ‘see and touch’. Given the interesting photo on those invitations, I suspect that we may see a significant cosmetic change to the iPad 3 - the omission of the physical Home button. While the Home button has served a valuable function on iOS devices right back to the original iPhone, the past five years have seen developments to the multitouch interface in iOS that may effectively render its function redundant. If multi-fingered swipes can replicate all of what the Home button does, then it makes sense (both from a cost and design perspective) that Apple would simply get rid of it.
That probably covers most of the major expectations surrounding the iPad 3, which I believe will be one of a series of significant releases this year (with the iPhone 5 and the new genre-creating TV set seems to be inevitable). I would say again that I do believe this to be the part of the cycle where new features are more impressive rather than evolutionary, and I think an incredibly high-res display and buttonless interface will certainly go a long way to combating the ever-improving field of Android (and to a lesser extent Windows) devices and activating the gadget-lust required to persuade a significant number of current iPad owners to shell out again to upgrade to a much better and more desirable model (pun intended). Nevertheless, Apple is known for confounding expectations, so it is possible (however unlikely) that you’ve just wasted another five minutes reading the rantings of yet another person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. ;)
Update: Since I wrote this there’s been fresh speculation of Apple introducing an 8GB iPad 2 to fill out the bottom end of the product line. I’m going to go out on a limb and call BS on this one. While I see some value in retaining the 16GB iPad 2 (and see this as somewhat likely), I can’t see any situation in which 8GB provides sufficient usable storage for an iPad (and there has never been one so small, right back to the original). iCloud may be the way of the future, but we are far from a situation in which your iPad will always be connected to iCloud so that less local storage makes sense. Even if it did, I simply can’t see how the reduced cost suits Apple’s product strategy, where they tend to make greater margins on higher-end models - and besides, flash memory is much cheaper these days. Will wait to see how this one pans out, but I just can’t see it happening.