Fifth-generation iPad due out this month promises to be the most useful tablet on the market as Apple's operating systems and cloud services mature.
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In a little over a week, Apple is expected to update both its iPad and its iPad Mini, along with its OS X desktop operating system and its long-neglected Mac Pro hardware.
The fifth-generation iPad isn't likely to surprise. It should be thinner and lighter. It might be available in new colors -- silver, gold and gray -- to match the iPhone 5s. It will probably be available with a new Apple Smart Cover keyboard (because the old one won't fit the revised dimensions) that will seem a bit more expensive than you'd prefer.
The most significant change in the iPad line is expected to be the addition of Apple's 64-bit A7 chip and a high-resolution Retina display for the iPad Mini. Apple's Touch ID fingerprint sensor will probably show up, too.
The A7 chip offers better performance than its predecessor, but its real value to Apple is that it paves the way for future upgrades of both software and hardware while distancing Apple's mobile platform from Android, which doesn't yet have an answer for 64-bit computing.
It also provides greater flexibility should Apple want to produce an ARM-based device with more than 4 GB of memory, the maximum memory that can addressed in a 32-bit system, or to make its hardware more suitable for memory-intensive creative and enterprise applications.
Despite being substantially similar to its predecessor on the outside, Apple's iPad should continue to be a phenomenally popular device, one destined to become even more useful as Apple's operating systems and cloud services come together to form a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.
For years, observers have speculated about whether Apple will combine its two operating systems, iOS and OS X, into a single unit of software, one capable of handling both touch-based and mouse-based input. It's already possible to create apps that will run on both of Apple's operating systems, thanks to The Chameleon Project and other cross-platform frameworks such as KoboldTouch. Convergence is happening slowly within Apple frameworks such as Game Center and Sprite Kit. However, the degree to which Apple is committed to convergence remains unclear, and that's probably the case within the company because the benefits are unclear.
Perhaps, if in a year or two Apple commits its entire product line to ARM silicon, we'll see touch handling and mouse handling frameworks become discretionary modules in a unified operating system.
Yet, operating system homogenization isn't as consequential as the divorce between devices and interfaces that's happening across the industry. When questions about whether iOS and OS X would eventually end up together first arose, devices were either touch based or mouse based. Since then, it has become apparent that the trend toward putting processors in everything demands many other ways to interact with devices, such as voice-based input and sensor-based input. In addition, smartphones are turning into remote control units for those ubiquitous computing devices.
In short, hardware has meaning beyond itself, as part of a broader ecosystem. The iPad is not merely a tablet but a portable display that may serve as an endpoint for viewing content, as a computing workspace accessed by wireless keyboard, or as an input device for controlling Apple TV, a remote Mac or a virtualized Mac. The iPad is a menu at restaurants, a point-of-sale interface at stores and a touch-based dashboard in cars. It's a tactile marketing tool and much more.
Next week's iPad might look familiar, but it will take us further into unfamiliar territory. The mobile revolution is just beginning.
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