While there is nothing inherently wrong with a long upgrade cycle, as seen with the Mac, which continues to report solid sales momentum, the reasoning behind holding on to tablets for years is much more troubling. There are currently approximately 3 million units of the original iPad still in use, or 20% of the devices Apple sold. For the iPad 2, it is possible that close to 60% of the units Apple sold are still being used. These two devices are not superior tablets. The initial iPad lacks a camera, while the iPad 2 has a mediocre camera. When compared to the latest iPads, these first two iPads are simply inferior tablets with slow processors, heavy form factors, and inferior screens. But none of that matters with owners. This is problematic and quite concerning, suggesting that many of these tablets are just being used for basic consumption tasks like video and web surfing and not for the productivity and content creation tools that Apple has been marketing.
There are signs that Apple believes there may be some kind of iPad revival around the corner. Since the average iPad upgrade cycle is three years and counting, does this mean that Apple may benefit from some sort of upgrade cycle? I'm skeptical. Why would someone upgrade an iPad that is just being used to watch video?
From Neil Cybart at Above Avalon. iPad defenders used to push back anytime anyone said that the device was just for consumption, highlighting people who used iPads to write music, sketch, or edit. I was always skeptical that such use was common since I was using the iPad primarily to read email and books, browse the web, skim social network feeds, and watch video. Lacking a physical keyboard, it was cumbersome to type on, and that is my primary creative activity. It was too large to carry with me everywhere, and as the iPhone grew larger, it offered most of what I needed from my iPad.
It turns out that's mostly what most people do on their iPads. I dig my iPad, don't get me wrong, but it is more of a “niche” product than the iPhone or even the MacBooks and MacBook Pros (I put niche in quotes because Apple sold 84 million of them in the first two years of its existence; that was a good-sized niche that Apple filled quickly). For me my iPad is a bit of a luxury: it's lighter than my laptop and has superior battery life, and it has a larger screen than my iPhone but can be held with one hand most of the time. So it turns out to be a great device for using while lying in bed reading books or watching video. If I had to give up one of my three devices, though, no doubt the iPad would be low device on that totem pole.
I agree with Cybart that the rumored iPad Pro at least offers a possibility of differentiation. The larger screen size alone may open some use cases. I just don't know what those might be and if they'll be compelling. Perhaps if it's called Pro it's intended from the start for a niche audience, offering them a reason to upgrade. Cybart suggests a haptic keyboard could open up typing as a more popular mode of creation on iPads, but as I've never tried a haptic keyboard, I'm skeptical I'd enjoy it as much as a physical keyboard. I'd love to be proven wrong, but I have a whole life's worth of typing on a physical keyboard bearing witness to the defendant.
Another rumor has a Force Touch-compatible stylus shipping with the iPad Pro. That, along with the larger screen size, could open up some more illustration use cases, stealing share from Wacom tablets. Rumored split screen options open up multi-app interaction as a use case. Still, none of those sounds like a mass market, especially given what will likely be a higher price point for the Pro.
Ultimately, I'm not sure it matters if the iPad is a mass market device. If the new Macbook continues to evolve and steal share from iPads on one end while the iPhone to steals share on the smaller screen size quadrant, Apple still captures the sale and the customer. I'm sure they wouldn't love to lose share to cheap, Android tablets, but if that's where some of the market goes, I'm not sure Apple would care to follow with any sense of urgency.