Forward thinking, old idea

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10 September 2014 | 0

What do you do if one of your primary products is beginning to tail off, denting your stock price and causing much speculation among investors, industry commentators and the chattering classes? You invent a new niche. Well you do if you are Apple that is — or so I would argue. Let me explain.

I’ve never been an Apple fan boy. They do certain things very well — design, packaging, marketing, but when I hear the word innovation uttered in the same context, I disagree. Apple, in my opinion is not a great innovator, and certainly not in the manner for which it is so often lauded. As far as I can see, Apple is very good at taking existing ideas and just doing them a bit better, well maybe a lot better. Before there was ever the iPod, there were numerous MP3 players that were all pretty good, but it was Apple’s marketing clout that made the iPod a hit. The same applies for the iPhone and the iPad — no ground-breaking concepts, each element had been done before, but Apple brought it all together in an efficient, attractive and very accessible way. Fair enough.

Rumour mill
Now, I would not argue for a second that that is a bad business model. Apple’s current market valuation is testament to that fact that this is a very good business model. So as rumours currently abound for a September announcement of the iPhone 6, which may well have screen sizes from the current 4” (101mm) right up to 6” (152mm), what caught my eye, was the Bloomberg report of rumours of a 12” (305mm) iPad, dubbed by the rumour mill as the iPad Pro. Why is this more important than the iPhone 6? Again, allow me to explain.

IDC has reported that tablet sales are cooling dramatically, especially in the established markets of Europe and the US. The analyst said that sales growth would be just 6.5% over 2013, which was not a stellar year compared to the previous one. Specifically, the iPad has had two quarters of slower sales this year, with unit numbers down 16% in the first quarter and 9% in the second.

“There is a Chinese proverb that says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago —the second best time is now. Well, I would argue that Apple has been prescient in this matter and began, though I would say grudgingly, to address this about two years ago”

There is a Chinese proverb that says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago —the second best time is now. Well, I would argue that Apple has been prescient in this matter and began, though I would say grudgingly, to address this about two years ago. It was about that time that Apple made significant strides to include greater security and manageability for the iPad in iOS, from a fleet perspective. Third party vendors in the mobile device management (MDM) space suddenly had far greater scope to manage iPads in an enterprise context. Roll on to August this year, amid the news of declines in sales, and Bloomberg reported the 12” Pro. Of course, a lot of this is speculation, but patterns in the past have shown that a certain amount of credence can be placed on such rumours. The appendage of ‘Pro’ to the large iPad is interesting indeed. As Microsoft has launched its Surface Pro 3 (our hands on review is here), it makes an even more compelling case for a tablet as a sole device, replacing laptop and companion device, especially in the enterprise space. But as always, often unfair comparisons are made with the iPad and a lot of people miss the point. But it is well within the bounds of possibility that Apple has seen the inevitable, realised that the only real space left for growth is the business market, of which it has been largely dismissive in the past, and decided to do what it does best and grab a good idea and refine it, package it and market it as only Apple can.

There are two further key pieces of evidence behind this. Well, I say evidence, one is and the other is more speculation. The concrete piece of evidence is the tie-up with IBM that will see a partnership to develop enterprise grade apps for the iPad. Many have commented that this is Apple getting serious about the enterprise market.

The rumour bit is that one of the specs of the rumour 12” Pro is that it will have more RAM, probably 2GB, specifically to support multi-tasking. There are also rumours that the new, larger screen will support side-by-side app presentation for true multi-tasking. When this is combined with reports from the Cult of Mac site that said a developer has found a “main-screen-canvas-size” option in the iOS 8 beta, it all suggests serious efforts to create a device that is more about productivity than mere consumption or presentation.

But how will Apple fare in the world of enterprise devices? Having more or less abandoned the space, can Apple still cut it where the business case overrules the fan boys?

Well, it may not be so straight forward. There are numerous failures to cite. Cisco failed with its Cius tablet which has been discontinued, except for special requests. HP bought WebOS and put out the TouchPad, only for it to remain stubbornly on the shelves until it was heavily discounted. Many had speculated, me included, that HP would bundle the TouchPad as a companion device with server or workstation sales to bring the tablet in full business use, but nothing seemed to happen and the TouchPad, is no more.

Even Microsoft itself, with its Surface line of ultrabook-spec tablets, could hardly call the endeavour a sales success. So when you look at the fact that Apple’s greatest successes have all been in the consumer space, it has to be said that it will have a difficult time getting on the procurement list for enterprise with a productivity device, instead of an executive trinket.

However, if it has been working away behind the scenes to create a genuinely focused productivity device, that is well supported by good peripherals and accessories, immediately available at a reasonable price (OK, I jest, this is Apple we are talking about), then it may well have a good shot at niche carved out by the Surface Pro line of devices — the productivity tablet. But with the likes of HP’s ElitePad line, Toshiba’s Z10 hybrid devices, and similar from Lenovo, Dell and Asus, it is already a crowded niche that will require differentiation and clever strategy.

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