The iPad Pro: Analysis and Predictions from a Mac MSP CTO

Yesterday's announcement of the iPad Pro wasn't much of a shock.  The Apple rumor sites have been talking about this product for over a year, and as the September 9th event approached, most of them pinned down the event as the official release of this new product.

Technically, the features aren't much of a shock either - the processor architecture, large retina display, detachable keyboard, and "pencil" - are all either improvements from the previous generation or features already available from a variety of other products across other platforms.

THESE SPECS, SCREEN SIZE, AND PENCIL DON'T MATTER.  THE ECOSYSTEM DOES

THESE SPECS, SCREEN SIZE, AND PENCIL DON'T MATTER.  THE ECOSYSTEM DOES

In fact, much attention post-event has been on the striking similarities of the iPad Pro to the Microsoft Surface – even poking fun at predictions three years ago that Apple would copy the Surface.  In fact, many are predicting that the iPad Pro will fail because it's not offering anything that hasn't been offered by competitors for years.

They're wrong.

Even if the iPad Pro had been an exact clone of the Surface down to the Microsoft logo, there are two reasons that it will succeed far beyond the nay-sayers' predictions: Timing and Apps.

First, let's talk about some context.

I've already done two interviews with with IT industry press, and the leading question is: "Will the iPad Pro be able to counter the year over year decline in tablet sales for Apple?"

That's a ludicrous question, and one that shows exactly how off-target today's expectations are for technology companies, especially Apple.  Everyone knows that infinite growth is an impossibility.  Eventually outside forces will put a downward slope on your graph, no matter how great your products are.  So a decline isn't something that needs reversal (no matter what your shareholders say).  A decline is something that you should have seen five years ago and developed the right product to release at the right time to create a new platform while another product's demand is petering off.  Just look at Samsung to see an example of what not to do.

The real question is: "Does the iPad Pro give developers a reason to create a new set of apps that users will want to buy, very very badly.... enough to pay $1000 for a device to run them on?"

In my work in the Apple space for 25+ years, as CTO of TSP, and as a paid expert for Coleman Research, there is one constant that has accurately predicted how successful an Apple or competitor's product or will do: the strength of the surrounding ecosystem.  If the ecosystem exists with a healthy group of energized developers; interesting problems that can be solved with software; and an audience ready and willing to pay for a device that can uniquely solve those problems with software written by those developers, then it will be a meaningful success.

The problem for most hardware manufacturers from Samsung to Microsoft is that they simply don't get that this combination is an almost assured formula for success (or they get it but can't achieve it).

Some examples:

The reason that most premium smartphone manufacturers' financials are in the crapper is simple: their dependence on Android means that their devices are not uniquely capable of solving these issues.  It's simply too easy to trade out one Android device for another, be it a tablet or phone.  Not unique? Not a long term success.

Samsung has tried to counter this with their Tizen OS, but they were too late to this game.  There are simply not enough developers willing to invest in a new development platform to write apps to solve the same problems being solved with other devices on other operating systems.  So Tizen misses on two marks (energized developers, unique devices).

When the original iPad was released in 2010, I argued that it had all of these elements.  I wasn't wrong.

The Microsoft Surface Pro is a more interesting analysis.  Microsoft has almost all of the ingredients: Windows developers are arguably still one of the largest group of developers out there; and certainly enterprises are willing to pay for cheaper Windows-based computing devices.  The Surface also provided something unique - an alternate form factor for the uber-mobile professional, without sacrificing all of the power of a mobile processor.  So why hasn't it been a meaningful success?  (Just look around any premium airport lounge if you disagree with that assessment.)

Some would argue that it's simply a success that is biding its time.  Incremental improvements in hardware spec, mobility, and OS have made huge strides in the past three years.  Windows 10 on a Surface Pro 3 is a pretty nice experience.   So will the Surface now be a runaway success, especially now that Apple has essentially validated many of the design choices made by the Microsoft team three years ago?

I doubt it.

The problem is that there's isn't a lot of passion in the platform.

I sometimes co-work out of a vibrant space in East London called 90 Main Yard.  Most of the people in the space are younger than me, and I can tell you that no one is talking about the next game-changing Windows app.  They're all talking about mobile development for either iOS or Android, and honestly, they're all too busy trying to make money to care about learning about another platform.  After all, in the mind of a 25-year old developer, if Uber and Airbnb can build multi-billion-dollar empires on iOS and Android, then that's where he or she is going to focus energy and passion.  The "old-school" developers are doing web development, and the crazy people just talk about making money on YouTube.  No one is doing snoozy desktop app development for Windows.

It's not that there's no money in developing for Windows.  If you want to write an app for professionals to do their jobs well, like AutoCAD or Photoshop, then you make a version for Windows.  In the UK public sector, large portions of the IT budget goes to companies like Capita and CapGemini, and I'm guessing that many of the dev projects, if not written for Windows, are still being used largely on computers running Windows.

The problem is that nothing exciting is being done on Windows, no matter how hard Microsoft tries to make it exciting.  So the Surface, firmly entrenched in the desktop world (with touch screen interface add-ons, yay!) just isn't going to engage and energize consumers because it's not engaging and energizing the developers.

So what about the iPad Pro?  What's different?

Let's go back to Apps and Timing.

Apps

Clearly, the energized developers are developing for iOS.  There's a positive feedback loop in being and iOS developer.  You come up with a good idea; make it into an app; release on the App Store and get instant positive feedback.  Some of the millions of iOS users are buying your app, you're making a decent cut of the profits.  Even marginal successes create a positive enough experience for a developer or mobile development company keep trying for the next big app.  After all, you can at least demonstrate your cool new idea to your friends and family, because chances are, at least half of them have an iOS device (Tizen, anyone?).

Now, Apple has released a new device - nay, platform - for your ideas.  Now it has a 12" screen (remember when desktop computers with 13" screens were big enough?), desktop-class power, and a stylus.  You already know how to code for iOS, you just need to learn some new APIs (which Apple has trained you to do faithfully with yearly iOS updates).

Perhaps you're getting a bit older, a bit wiser.  You no longer think that the future is in hyper-local dating apps, but maybe in something more grown up.  Your doctor uncle has an idea for an app to help visualize 3D information from MRI systems.  Or your friend in the construction says it would be great to have these building plans on something that he can use onsite to replace his tattered notebook.  Or you've got a great idea for an education app that schools can use on iOS devices to help kids learn how to be more creative with a stylus.

Are you going to develop those ideas for the Surface or iOS?

That's why I don't think the iPad Pro is "just another device."  To a developer, it's just as much of departure from the iPad Air as tvOS is.  Different form factor, performance, and input capabilities.  All of those open doors for developers, especially those with a passion for the platform and an understanding of life's more complex problems that need solving.

Timing

And I think the timing for the iPad Pro is impeccable – not because it's what Consumers are demanding now, but instead it gives Developers what they are clamoring for: new opportunities.  Developers are looking for outlets for creativity in what are already crowded App Stores.  Everyone has had the ideas for a new mobile app already, but now there's new places to focus that energy: a device that puts the app on the TV; a device that puts the app on a clipboard-sized tablet; and a device on people's wrists.

It's not coincidence that Apple has in the last year release three new platforms for iOS developers: WatchOS; tvOS; and now the iPad Pro.  Because now is the time for them to give developers who have made some bucks off of the iPhone some more opportunities to make more bucks.

The Result?

I predict two waves of iPad Pro sales:

The first will be as soon as the gates open - Apple fans and developers looking to figure out what is possible with this new platform.  This is the usual "push" from an iPad upgrade cycle.  Nothing new here and nothing to write home about, and in fact, I bet that the first two quarters of iPad results after the event yesterday will be called "disappointing" by investors.

The second and much more significant wave will be as soon as the developers start hitting the ground with apps that leverage the power and potential of this new device.  That will probably take 6 months at least, but the surge will be strong and consistent.  Maybe not groundbreaking, but you'll start to see the iPad Pro in the hands of your doctor; your architect; and your kids' teachers.  And over time Apple's tablet numbers will start to notch up.

And that will be when you know that it's not just about the pencil, the keyboard, or larger screen.  It's about the ecosystem.