Tech on the Side: Apple's tablet upgrade cycle problem
Dec 7, 2013

Tech on the Side: Apple's tablet upgrade cycle problem

On this blog I like to cover the big issue facing our planet, issues dramatically affecting millions or billions of people: war, conflict, global warming, poverty, economics, rights and freedoms, etc. Okay, okay, sometimes I like to get bogged down in the personalities and gamesmanship of politics, but if I can I like to keep the emphasis on the big issues.

The question of whether to upgrade my much beloved ipad 2 to the latest model is hardly an example of a similarly important problem; indeed, it is perhaps the very definition of a first world problem. Oh, but isn't it just fun to talk about? Besides, my internal purchasing decision at least points to some larger themes in the tech industry that are interesting to explore. So here goes: this blog's second "Tech on the Side" post.

Why I am a prime candidate to upgrade:
A little background: I got an iPad 2 shortly after it came out as a bonus at an online poker site. I didn't except much from my second Apple device (had an iPod Touch before this) but like millions of others became quickly enamoured by the device. These days I use it many hours a day, every day. I use it in bed, on subways, on the couch, at the university and so on. The ease, comfort and general experience all largely outshine my desktop and now rarely used laptop for all but a few applications that need the extra computing power and/or screen space.

Now that Apple has released a three generations newer iPad, and selling my iPad 2 and upgrading cost about $300, I should be the easiest person in the world for Apple to convince to upgrade. I love their product, use it constantly, and the upgrade cost is not inhibiting. I'm invested and familiar with the Apple ecosystem, don't particularly want to jump to Andriod, and have a tech geek's love of the latest and greatest. Yet after going to the store to compare them side by side, they were not able to convince me.

And why I am not:
The essential problem is that the iPad 2 is simply good enough such that the jump in the quality of the user experience between the iPad 2 and the iPad air is very small. The biggest advantage is the jump to a high res screen. The iPad air screen is, like many but not all high res screens out there, amazing. But side by side comparisons in common apps and common viewing distances simply don't seem that noticeable, at least to my eyes. The CPU benchmarks a massive 5x speed advantage, but side by side comparisons show almost no functional difference in the apps that I use. The only meaningful difference was slightly quicker load times for heavy apps. Slightly smaller and slightly lighter, but again no significant change to the user experience. Wouldn't use Siri, never use the camera, single microphone is just fine, what on earth would I use the comotion processor for?, etc., etc., etc. And of course, it runs the identical operating system with identical software.

The long and short of it is that the quality of the many hours a day that I use my iPad would not be significantly changed or improved with the switch. And that poses a big problem for Apple.

The cellphone upgrade cycle:
With cellphones, our rather distorted pricing scheme means that there is a heavy subsidization of costs every two years. So people just have a two year upgrade cycle and the iPhone's 3G/3GS, 4/4s, 5/5s yearly upgrade scheme makes sense as everyone is always upgrading a full jump at a time and the x to xs transition is small and doesn't need a justification as few are ever doing that. Each jump in numerals only needs be big enough to justify the highly subsidized upgrade price and usually has been.

The tablet upgrade cycle:
With tablets, there is no driver of the upgrade cycle, no almost forced incentive to upgrade. Instead, people upgrade when there is a significantly compelling reason to upgrade. That means the actual quality of the user experience needs to be a big upgrade and the comparison between what we had and what we are being sold needs to be large. That Apple can't give a loyal enthusiast enough justification to upgrade three iterations later, speaks to the difficulty in providing such a compelling reason to upgrade.


This problem with tablets, and to a lesser degree phones, is strikingly different today from a few years back. The difference in quality of the user experience from an old feature phone - or even the blackberry type devices we first started calling smartphones - and a modern iPhone or Andriod is staggering. It is a colossal jump and there is huge I motivation for everyone to get some form of smartphone. Likewise in tablets, the jump from a laptop to a tablet is a staggering jump. They are completely different experiences, and for many uses, a far superior experience.


But now that we have smartphones and tablets, the big hardware jumps have vanished. A smartphone and a tablet at the hardware level is largely just a glass screen. For a couple years now, the trend has been to put in nicer glass screens. In phones that was a steady increase in size (particularly with Android competing by going larger) and resolution. In tablets, nobody has tried to significantly increase the size of the original iPad (with Android ironically competing by going smaller, and thus cheaper). Somewhat interestingly, when the third generation iPad came out, Android competition was incredibly weak and the retina display upgrade made the jump that much larger. However, Android competitors caught up remarkably quickly (as did the Android app ecosystem).

The point is that at a hardware standpoint, the increases are slowing down. Every screen size imaginable is now obtained, and at very high resolutions. CPU speeds are increasing, but legacy hardware, at least for Apple, is still quite competent at maintaining reasonable speed. iOS7 runs very well on iPad 2, for instance. Camera's are a major source of improvement, but there are physical limitations and the big jumps from horrible camera phone pics to the kind of quality than one can get today has already occurred. Further increases will be nice, but the present is largely sufficient.

Software plays a big role in this. One of the biggest advantages that came from modern smartphones and tablets is not just hardware, but software. One doesn't just need a nice touch screen with a fast processor and a high quality camera, it is the quality of the operating systems and apps that really drive the user experience and made for the phenomenal leaps a few years back. Especially for Apple (a myriad of models stuck on older versions of the operating system makes Android a bit of a mess), legacy devices all run the latest software. So the biggest determinant of a user experience is unchanged. This certainly is in many ways a good thing: when you buy a product you know it has a long shelf life as it will get better as time goes on and the software upgrades. That is part of the value proposition. But it really hurts the arguments companies like Apple need to have shorter upgrade cycles.

Is Apple still an innovator?
A lot of people like to blast Apple for this perception of stalling innovation. Even though from a monetary perspective emphasizing things like supply chains and incremental upgrades that maximize profit margins makes complete sense, it certainly isn't as sexy. People have this expectation that Apple should be released new category defining products every couple years or they are off their rocker. I think such claims undervalue the truly enormous confluence of factors that had to come together to make something like modern touchscreen smartphones and tablets possible, and we don't really have good reason to suspect that Apple (or anyone else) could possibly deliver such a sea change every few years. None of tech commentators offering this view actually have any ideas of what the Next Big Thing might be, yet hold Apple to this unrealistic standard of a corporate ubermenchen.

On tablets, it isn't clear exactly what Apple could possibly do to fix this problem. They can make it a bit lighter, a bit thinner, a bit faster, a bit better camera, and maybe at some point a bit better screen again. Is any of that going to change the basic dynamic in the upgrade cycle I have identified here? No. But what else could they realistically do? Time will tell, I suppose.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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