Will Apple Split iOS Products Into Standard & Pro Lines?

At some point during the last week, the rumors of an iPad 3 launching this Fall transformed into rumors of a high-end iPad 2 launching this Fall. Most of these whispers have their origin at Taiwanese newspaper Digitimes, which hits when it hits – but misses widely just as often. While it’s perfectly plausible that these leaks are 100% bogus, the idea of Apple splitting their iOS devices into (more expensive) high-end and (less-expensive) low-end lines wouldn’t be unheard of. After all, they’ve been doing it for years with Macs and iPods.

Is this what we'll be seeing come Fall?

Retina iPad

These rumors involve an upgraded iPad 2 with a high-end “Retina” display screen. The current iPad 2′s resolution, 1024 x 768, makes for a nice viewing experience – but its pixel density is considerably lower than that of the iPhone 4. Each square inch of iPad screen real estate has 132 pixels. The iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4, on the other hand, sport a whopping 326 PPI. The iPad is going to catch up at some point – the only question is when.

The only reason we didn’t see a Retina display in the iPad 2 was likely cost. Manufacturing the gorgeous 326 PPI display on a 3.5″ iPhone screen is one thing. Doing it on a 9.7″ iPad screen is something else entirely. More accurately – assembling a Retina iPad 2 that can be sold for a profit at $500 is something else entirely.

While it’s possible that we’ll see this introduced to the iPad 3 (at the current pricing structure), perhaps Apple saw that they won’t be able to squeeze that many pixels into a $500 iPad for several years. Perhaps they decided that 2011 is the year to “Mac-ify” the iOS line – and start to sell them in multiple product (and price) tiers.

Established Patterns

Up to this point, Apple has kept a very simple and predictable approach to its iOS phones and tablets. It’s one model per year, with differences only in GBs of storage and (in the case of the iPad) the option for a 3G radio.

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Looking at Apple’s Mac line of desktops and notebooks, however, the MacBook has standard, Pro, and Air models. The Mac line has an iMac, Mac Mini, and Mac Pro. Within those categories, most of them are broken down further depending on screen size and horsepower.

With iPods, you have the iPod Classic (which was, many years ago, simply “iPod”) – but then you also have the iPod Nano, and the iPod Shuffle. They differ in size, form factor, storage, and price. Of course there’s also the iPod touch, but it’s really a crossover iOS device that’s merely marketed as an iPod.

Right now, many customers appreciate iOS devices’ simplicity – even when it comes to purchasing one. If you want an iPhone, there’s one iPhone. Sure, you can get a 16GB or 32GB model, and you can get it on Verizon or on AT&T – but that part is easy. There’s one iPhone.

By splitting its iOS line into tiers, Apple would be mucking with a system that’s worked. Would they do it? They almost certainly will – at some point. Mobile devices are increasingly becoming the central computers for many people. As time goes by and this becomes more and more the case, many of the qualities that are now associated with desktops and laptops will be absorbed by the mobile computers. This will likely include multiple tiers as well.

Motivation

There would be several justifications for doing this right now. A low-end (cheaper) iPhone has been one of the most consistent rumors regarding what Apple has up its sleeve for this Fall – and for good reason. Low-cost Android phones are flooding the market, and many people who don’t want to dole out $200 for a high-end smartphone may like the sound of a mid-grade one for free (on a 2 year contract).

Previously, Apple has been selling its previous year’s iPhone as the low-end model. But there’s a certain stigma associated with “last year’s product” that may turn customers away. If I can get an iPhone 3GS or a 3-month-old Android phone for the same price, that two-year-old iPhone isn’t looking so good. Having a low-end iPhone that still has that “new iPhone” buzz going for it could potentially be a smart move.

Similarly, offering a higher-end iPad model would be a preemptive move against the Samsungs and Motorolas of the world who would love to have something amazing that the iPad doesn’t. Even if they had to sell it for $700-800, a Galaxy Tab with a 300+ PPI display would certainly grab the attention of holiday buyers. It isn’t a fantasy, either, as Sammy recently showed off an über-high res screen that could be used in future tablets.

Maybe Apple sees the possibility of that happening and wants to strike before their competition can. An HD or Pro version of the iPad – even if it cost a couple of Benjamins more than the standard iPad 2 – would guarantee that they remain firmly in control of the tablet market.

Time Will Tell

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Of course this all comes back to a couple of sources that Digitimes quoted. It could be far off. What is for sure though is that the line of iOS devices will eventually expand just like Macs and iPods did. It’s the natural evolution of computer products. Whether that will happen this Fall or sometime later – we’ll have to wait and see.

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