The iPad Pro

Question: Does the iPad 2 need better specs to better compete with the other tablets on the market?

Answer: First off, this is a trick question. Most of the promised iPad competitors aren’t on the market as yet. There are the Android-based Motorola Xoom and Galaxy Tab (neither of which have really reached the end of their gestation periods as yet). And that’s about it. We’re still waiting for the tablets from HP and RIM and presumably others.

Even so, I expect the answer to be “No.” Apple has argued (successfully in my view) that what matters most is not who has the fastest processor or greatest amount of RAM or largest higher-definition screen. What really matters is which platform delivers the better overall experience. That’s why, as pointed out in a PCMag article, Apple doesn’t even list the megapixel size of the iPad’s cameras — or tell you how much RAM is installed.

If the iPad’s screen resolution is good enough to be stunning, if its speed is adequate for all that you do — a small deficit of specs won’t affect purchase decisions by today’s consumers. Plus, there is all that the iPad can do that its competitors can’t…starting with working as an iPod for your music and continuing with the unmatched collection of apps in the App Store.

Add to to all of this the fact that “he who gets to dominate the market first typically stays first” — even when late-coming competitors offer marginally better products. According to some reports, Apple had as much as 100% of the tablet market in 2010 and can be expected to hold on to most of that share in 2011. Unless a competitor comes up with a “game-changing” device, don’t expect any of them to successfully challenge the iPad. I know some people will point out that Android has taken a lead in market share in the smartphone arena. But this is different. There are no two-year phone contracts with tablets and they are not linked to a specific carrier. In fact, I suspect the majority of iPad buyers don’t even get a 3G model. Android devices will have a much tougher time gaining share here.

Finally, as I argued in a User Friendly View column (and as echoed by a New York Times analysis), a key — perhaps the key — factor that gives the iPad 2 an unbeatable edge is its lower price. When you can get the caché of Apple (who usually extracts a premium for its products) and spend less money than on a competing device, why consider anything else?

Yes, I’d like to see the iPad 2 have better cameras (the ones included now really suck and are not at all what I expect from Apple). And sure, Apple could throw in a bit more RAM. Oh, and how about a Retina Display? But are the lack of these features going to get me to consider buying something other than an iPad? No way. And I’m far from alone. Just ask all the people who still can’t get an iPad because demand has far outstripped supply.

The iPad Pro

All of that said, trying to accurately predict the future in the technology universe is ultimately a fool’s errand. The time may yet come when Apple will feel compelled to compete on specs. Assuming that time comes, how might Apple fight a spec war without sacrificing the iPad’s price advantage?

To get the answer, Apple need look no further than its laptops: The MacBook and the MacBook Pro. Why not make a similar distinction for the iPad: The iPad and the iPad Pro?

The iPad 2 (and its successors) would remain the iPad and maintain a starting price no higher than $499. The iPad Pro would offer all the features that might otherwise give the competition some advantage — and sell for about $150 more.

Developers might have a few problems making sure their apps are compatible with both lines of iPads. But I don’t expect this to be a major hassle. Otherwise, it should be smooth sailing.

In one move, Apple can claim to have both the least expensive tablet and the most feature-packed one. Game. Set. Match.

P.S. Some have predicted that an eventual “iPad Pro” will be a combination of the MacBook Air and the iPad. To me, that’s a different animal, separate from what I am considering here.

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