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Have Apple's iPads Peaked?

Many reviewers consider Apple's new iPhones to be essential upgrades. Now the company needs new iPads that inspire the same excitement.

from low-margin markets in which premium-minded Apple doesn't even bother to compete. But the growth of these cheap tablets has driven down component costs. That means that while cheaper tablets were once marked by shoddy build quality and lousy screens, many of the new options are much nicer -- perhaps nice enough to sway would-be iPad customers who'd prefer to save a few dollars. Certainly, if all you need to do is browse the Web, watch movies, and send email, the extra money you'd spend on an iPad is hard to justify.

At the mid-to-high end, the newest Intel-powered tablets are much more capable and attractive than last year's models. Indeed, the newest 2-in-1 devices are so slim, light, and powerful, some have begun to question whether "pure" tablets such as the iPad are even necessary.

These challenges don't mean the iPad will fade away. Among tablets, only iPads feature iOS, which is a selling point for many users, especially given that all those flashy new 2-in-1s run the unpopular Windows 8.1. But more than ever, the iPad needs a legitimate advance to reignite sales. Apple has applied iterative improvements over the last few years, but as the iPad 2's enduring popularity attests, these elegant refinements carry only so much weight.

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Will iPads hold their ground against ultra-thin 2-in-1s such as the Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi?

Based on rumors, new iPads should debut before the end of the year. They'll surely be thinner, faster, and lighter than previous-gen devices, and will probably come equipped with the Touch ID that debuted in the iPhone 5s. The latest iPads will derive more benefit from iOS 8 than older models will, simply because the newest hardware will be more closely tuned to Apple's new OS. iOS 8 will also help the new iPads work more seamlessly with other Apple products. All of these moves would be welcome, but it's hard to know if iOS 8's most exciting features will be as transformative for iPads as they are for iPhones. It's easy to imagine someone using Apple Pay on an iPhone, for example -- but on a new iPad Air? That seems sort of awkward.

Some evidence suggests Apple will introduce split-screen multitasking in at least some upcoming iPad models. This feature would be most useful on full-sized iPads, so it doesn't necessarily help Apple address iPhone 6 cannibalization of the iPad Mini -- but, as mentioned, Tim Cook and other execs are probably fine with lighter Mini sales, as long as overall iPad numbers grow. Yes, Windows tablets already offer split-screen multitasking, but given the app disparity between iOS and Windows, the feature might be more popular on iPad. After all, how many people frequently use any of Windows 8.1's Modern apps, let alone so many that multitasking is a constant concern? Apple's success hasn't always been about being first; it's been about introducing features at the right time and in the right way.

If rumors are any indication, the "right way" might involve announcing the feature alongside a 12.9-inch "iPad Pro," which Apple allegedly plans to launch early next year. But even if that device doesn't appear, Apple has significantly opened iOS to developers and introduced a variety of tools and resources, including Swift, a new programming language. As a result, the next generation of apps could be even more compelling than those already on the market. With split-screen multitasking thrown in, that appeal should only be stronger.

Even so, Apple can't sustain momentum forever by simply appropriating competitors' ideas and implementing them better. There's a fine line between being patient and methodical, and being reactionary.

In terms of innovation, Apple's filed a staggering array of iPad-related patent applications. Some raise interesting possibilities, such as rear sensors that could let iPad users compose emails or play games without blocking the screen. Others are a bit more off the wall, such as a recent invention that could treat files like 3D objects; it would let users assign files various physics-based attributes, such as a heavier "weight" that makes larger files drag more slowly across a touchscreen. Others still refer to proximity- and gesture-based navigation that could let users control the iPad without physically touching the screen.

Apple also holds numerous patents for 2-in-1 designs. Cook and his colleagues have slammed hybrid devices as neither fish nor fowl, but the company has been known to reverse course in the past; Jobs criticized both small tablets and large phones, for example, and Apple now makes both. If an iPad Pro with a notebook-sized screen is truly in the offing, some sort of hybrid option could certainly make sense.

Whether any of these patents turn into real products remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Apple's new iPhones were designed to be the kind of big leap that makes upgrades hard to resist, and it's time for iPads to get the same treatment.

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