Apple's Oct. 16 iPad event suffers from low expectations

Analysts want to be surprised, but are anticipating a refresh not a revolution

Apple today announced it will host a news conference Oct. 16 on its Cupertino, Calif. campus, where analysts expect it to unveil new iPad tablets.

The invitations, which went out to media and analysts, were Apple-cryptic, with the tag line of only, "It's been way too long."

Apple's invites are as dissected as were photographs of the reviewing stand at May Day parades through Moscow's Red Square during the Cold War, when Kremlinologists would parse rising Party stars from those destined for Soviet purges.

For example, last month's invitations to the iPhone event simply said, "Wish we could say more," a line that most interpreted to mean there would be other announcements besides new iPhones, in particular a wearable -- which came to pass -- or even larger tablets, which did not.

Next week's event will be held on Apple's Cupertino campus, perhaps a hint that it will be a much smaller, perhaps lower-key affair than the last two years' iPad unveilings, which were at larger venues in San Francisco (2013) and San Jose (2011).

"Not necessarily," said Carolina Milanesi, chief of research and head of U.S. business for Kantar Worldpanel Comtech. "Sometimes we try to read too much into things. Maybe [other venues] were already booked."

Milanesi also pointed out that Apple introduced the iPhone 5S and 5C last year at its headquarters, and that that wasn't a throw-away roll-out.

Even so, analysts' expectations were generally low.

"The tablet as the device that you read from, that you sit on the couch and watch movies with, that's saturated the market. And 'old' ones are almost as good as new ones, so we're already in a replacement market," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, inferring that next week's announcements wouldn't break any excitement records.

Gottheil and others anticipated more of a refresh than a recast of the iPad line, with new Air and Mini devices almost identical to their predecessors. That would fit with the recently-leaked photographs of an alleged 2014 iPad Air, which was slight thinner and sported a Touch ID fingerprint scanner embedded in the home button.

The muted expectations may come from the fact that Apple has a very difficult time keeping secret its not-yet-announced products if they've been in production: There are simply too many ways components can be pilfered from factories in China. And nothing's yet surfaced that hints at a transformation of the line-up.

But Apple could still pull out a rabbit. While the iPhone 6's physical format was widely leaked before Sept. 9, the larger iPhone 6 Plus was not.

Apple could, said both Gottheil and Milanesi, unveil a larger iPad, a perennial speculative favorite, or if not larger, at least one fashioned in some way for enterprises. Both mentioned the Apple-IBM partnership the two companies announced in mid-July as rationale.

But Milanesi and Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw Research, also believe that Apple would heavily stress the Touch ID fingerprint scanner and its security implications.

"I suspect unique features such as Touch ID are critical to getting people to upgrade, [even though] I think we're just in the middle of a lull caused by the long refresh cycle," Dawson said in an email. "It will also be interesting if they talk about any sort of Apple Pay or Apple Watch integration with the iPad."

"Touch ID on the security side is an extra layer," said Milanesi, talking about Apple's marketing message for this year's tablets. "But I would hope they would also talk about they're doing with iCloud and iWork, as well as with Continuity and how that can help you."

Continuity is Apple's umbrella term for a small pot of new features that use proximity awareness to share phone calls and text messages between iPhones and iPads running iOS 8, and Macs powered by OS X Yosemite. Another Continuity component, "Handoff," lets users start a task or begin creating a document on one, then resume on another.

Apple will probably also use the Oct. 16 news conference to announce same-day availability of Yosemite, as it did during last season's iPad-centric event. If so, it would pop Computerworld's speculative balloon of an Oct. 21 roll-out, a guess based on the combination of Mavericks' ship date and Apple's third-quarter earnings call of Monday, Oct. 20.

Dawson also noted that the event was set for a Thursday, a departure from the usual Tuesday that Apple seems to prefer.

"The day of the week is unusual, as it's been pretty consistently nine or 10 days from announce to launch for iPhones and iPads, with launch almost always on a Friday," Dawson remarked. "So this may signal a shift either in the gap between announce and launch, or in the launch date; the former seems more likely."

Gottheil agreed, citing the Columbus Day holiday in the U.S. on Monday, Oct. 13 as a possible reason why Apple pushed the event two days of the week later than usual.

By past practice, if Apple does show off new iPads on Oct. 16, the firm would probably begin selling them on Friday, Oct. 24.

It's unknown whether Apple will reprise the live webcasting of the last two years' iPad events, but if it does, it would likely not announce that until early on Oct. 16.

Apple's event will start at 10 a.m. PT (1 p.m. ET).


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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