iPad 3? Not By Christmas Time

Here's a guess at when the iPad 3 will hit the market--think less sleigh bells and more fireworks and summer vacations.
Over the weekend I realized that the battery in my first-generation iPad is starting to fatigue. That's a bad thing, because as batteries go, the decay isn't linear, so in a month or so, what used to last 10 hours, will probably only last two or three. More on the battery issue later, but it ties into why I may not wait for the iPad 3.

When the iPad 2 came out, I figured I'd pass and wait for the next generation. While I suppose it would be nice to have a camera pointing toward and away from me, and a faster processor is always welcome, the combined value wasn't enough to get me to toss my original iPad after just a year. What follows here is my semi-informed guess at when the iPad 3 will be available, along with some semi-informed thoughts on the overall tablet and smartphone businesses.

Cut Right To The Chase

A good starting point is to look at the processor and, more specifically, at who's manufacturing it. Samsung makes both the A4 processor, which powers my original iPad, and the A5, which powers the iPad 2. In the world of custom silicon, it's pretty rare for a company to go with just one manufacturer for a part. Having a second source tends to keep costs down and mitigate the risk of unforeseen events, like the tsunami that crippled manufacturing in Japan. CPUs are exception to that rule, as getting each manufacturer's operation fully validated is an expensive proposition.

Samsung is a huge company with more than one fabrication facility, so that's a good thing, but Samsung's hugeness can also be a problem for Apple. Particularly when you're dealing with products like phones and tablets, if you buy chips from Samsung, you'll probably also compete with the company's finished products. And so it is with Apple and Samsung, which recently have started suing each other over look and feel and other issues.

So for a number of good reasons it wasn't surprising to hear that Apple is also working with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) as a second source for the A6 processor that will go into the third-generation iPad. While the A5 is a dual-core design, it's said that the A6 will be a quad-core chip. The A5 was manufactured on a 45-nm process, it looks like the A6 will be done on a 28-nm process. None of this is news to chip heads, and none of it really matters all that much to consumers, except for the fact that the older 45-nm manufacturing is well understood while the 28-nm process is fairly new, and it may take some time to get everything perfect for production.

The good news for those eager to see the iPad 3 is that that TSMC is said to have shipped samples off to Apple recently. Normally, that would mean you'd expect to see product in the market as early as the holidays, but there's a catch. TSMC also says it'll have to re-tape out (an antiquated term from the days when the design was actually taped out on a board, and lithographic techniques were used to miniaturize the design onto silicon) the final production version, meaning something has changed about the final design that will require that the final production chip be retested and the design reverified. The redesign could be due to a problem with heat dissipation when the chip runs at full speed, or it could be that Apple wants a change, like larger on-chip memory caches.

Whatever the reason, don't expect to see the iPad 3 until about this time next year. And while I think a new version every 18 months or so is just fine, it's a bit of a problem for me personally, and maybe for other original iPad buyers. Apple's policy on dead batteries is impressive: Your battery won't hold a charge, Apple gives you a new iPad for $99--about what a new battery would cost. However, as nice as that policy is, I'm tempted to at least take a look at some other tablets rather than spend more money on my aging iPad.

The features that Apple is likely to add to the iPad, stuff like USB support, near field communications and 4G support, can be had in other devices. I still keep music mostly on my iPod, so it's not a problem for me to switch to an Android tablet. Come Christmas time, it'll be tempting to look at some Android alternatives. Will the ongoing spat with Samsung make the iPad 3 any later? It could. Samsung also makes the NAND flash memory for the iPad and at least some of the displays.

Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. You can write to him at [email protected].

To find out more about Art Wittmann, please visit his page.

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