Are There Any Certainties About Apple’s 2011 Products?

January 20th, 2011

You just know that there will be a new version of the iPad this year, and barring some unforeseen corporate disaster at Apple, that expectation will come true. The same can be said about an iPhone 5, although how each of these products will be actually labeled is open to question.

Beyond those simple certainties, all bets are off, although there are some strong possibilities. Let’s explore them.

A big question for the iPad is whether Apple will attempt to match the high-resolution display that debuted in the iPhone 4 last year. But on a 9.7-inch screen, doubling the existing resolution, which means four times as many pixels, has to be costly; not necessarily for the updated graphics chip, but for the actual display. Can Apple do that and keep the current price structure?

It may well be, because they revealed, during this week’s quarterly conference call with financial analysts, that they are spending close to $4 billion for advance orders of new components. This is a smart way for Apple to leverage billions of dollars of clear and free cash to shore up availability of the key parts needed in their iconic gadgets.

One possible component is the LCD display. If Apple makes a huge deal with Samsung or their other display partners, they might be able to get those special iPad displays for far less money than otherwise. This would make it possible for a high-resolution iPad without raising the price. Absent that, Apple could offer two lines. One a trimmer version of the current model for $100 less for each configuration, and then an iPad Pro with the near-retina display and other goodies, for $100 above today’s prices.

Acting against this possibility is the fact that Apple doesn’t necessarily want to complicate their product lines, but remember they are still selling the 2009 iPhone 3GS, in an 8GB configuration, for $49. That’s a smart move, because folks who are used to free or low-cost cell phones can now get an iPhone without paying much up front, though the carriers will still get you in the end on their two-year contracts.

Whether or not the screen resolution changes, it’s almost a given that the next iPad will sport a front-facing camera, for FaceTime use, and perhaps a rear camera, although that would be rather an awkward configuration. Taking pictures with a smartphone, or a regular cell phone, is fairly trivial. Doing it with an iPad isn’t going to be as comfortable a process.

Now one key criticism against the iPad is that it weighs too much, although a pound and a half seems pretty light. But when you attempt to use it to read something with one hand, it’s going to become ungainly real fast. These are the advantages of, say, an Amazon Kindle, or perhaps the 7-inch tablet, even if that form factor is otherwise unproven.

Since I’m not a product designer, I wouldn’t pretend to know the best way to give the iPad a diet, beyond slimming the case and perhaps reducing the size of the screen bezel. Even a few ounces would be a revelation. One suggestion I’ve heard, and repeated here and on my radio show, is the use of carbon fiber perhaps for the rear enclosure, but that can also be expensive. Once again, consider the paragraph above about Apple’s substantial investment in raw materials, and maybe this is one of the parts they’re buying.

Insofar as the iPhone is concerned, the real question is how much change Apple needs to make after last year’s substantial redesign. If the revised antenna configuration on the CDMA version, built for the Verizon Wireless network, means a reduced likelihood of “Death Grip” situations, perhaps the next iPhone will have a similar revision for the GSM version. But it’s also true that the new antenna design may simply be required to support a different network scheme.

It may also be that Apple will devise a “world phone” design, containing radios for both CDMA and GSM. Such chips are already available, and I assume they could be configured in such a way that only the protocol required for a particular carrier is active, so battery life isn’t hurt. But it would reduce Apple’s costs, since they could leverage one design for all. That may also cover the added expense of a dual-mode chip. You may even see support of LTE, assuming reasonably bug-free and energy-efficient parts are available.

Now even if Apple doesn’t go the dual-mode route, buying an iPhone for a particular carrier would take care of the issues about whether you get the CDMA or GSM version. When it comes to the iPad, that can be a source of confusion, since the product is, with a few exceptions overseas, sold separate from a data contract. In that case, if you buy the “wrong version,” you’re still apt to be tied to a specific carrier, whereas a world iPad would make your choice of data services far simpler. That assumes you’re not just going to get the Wi-Fi edition, and hope for a nearby hotspot.

Past these essentials, the room for speculation is wide. Will the next iPad have an SD card slot? What about the mini-USB port required by new European Union requirements? Would an accessory adapter do the job, or will Apple simply offer onboard it as an optional means of connection and charging? When it comes to video output, will Apple take advantage of newer graphic chips to offer true 1080p resolution, same as Blu-ray? If true, it won’t be long before that feature ends up in an Apple TV revision.

The ball is now in your court, gentle reader.

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