Apple announced the newest version of the iPad named the Apple Air. As always, the world was waiting for this announcement with great anticipation. Apple surely did refresh the iPad, but with nothing that would suggest it is more useful than the previous version. The changes to the Apple Air are mainly around form factor and processing speed. The new tablet is several ounces lighter and 20% thinner. The weight dropped from 1.4 pounds to one pound. The Air will also receive the new 64-bit A7 processor found in the iPhone 5S. Performance for the Air should be improved, including wi-fi transfer speeds, according to Apple.
The initial market reaction remains to be seen, but this announcement offered little to get excited about. Some pundits in the industry were fairly certain that the new iPad would include fingerprint recognition, which it did not. The new Air is a marginal upgrade with likely few benefits to the average user. The new processor might be nice for some, but there were few complaints about the older models needing more CPU power. After all, we don’t all need a Ferrari to run our daily errands. It is likely that the older models of the iPad are still perfectly usable for many users.
The price of the Air begins at the usual Apple $499 starting point. The iPad mini is priced at $399, and now has the new high resolution retina display. The iPad2 will still be available starting at $399, but one has to wonder how long that will continue to be available. Given the iPad2 is several generations older and only $100 cheaper, it likely does not make sense for a first time buyer. The iPad2 should really be half the price of the Air, or less.
All in all, this new tablet does nothing to improve the basic tablet functionality. Apple clearly has not innovated anything new in the tablet market this year. The most exciting tablet developments coming this year are $99 tablets, of which several will be introduced during the holiday season. While the cheap tablets will have 7 or 8 inch screens, they will still likely be perfectly suitable for many tasks. Schools might take a look at the lower priced tablets as a value proposition. The fanciest technology does not necessarily equate to higher levels of learning. Most tablets perform similar functions in terms of delivering information and content. Yes, there are differences in software and app ecosystems, but there is little research that suggests any specific app offers superior learning gains over another.
We are in a phase of commodity based tablets where product differentiation is becoming more challenging. CNN.com reported that "Tablets are a maturing market; there's not much competitors can do to differentiate at this point," according to Sarah Rotman Epps at Forrester Research. While this might be a bit too strong of a prediction, the tablet market has become more mature, and many products are similar. This big differentiator is the Microsoft Surface Pro, which is much more PC like than tablet like. The Surface Pro is a unique product among tablet competition, but comes with a hefty price tag. However, the introduction of third party vendor Windows 8.1 tablets in the coming months will be a major differentiator between Apple and Android alternatives. The ability to run full versions of PC software on a tablet is a competitive advantage of Windows tablets and offers the possibility of increased productivity.
Today’s Apple Air announcement was great for technophiles, and it is technologically a step forward. For most schools and students though, the less expensive tablets currently on the market, or that will shortly enter the market, might offer a better value proposition.