Super tablet, hybrid, or something else? We examine the evidence and the inevitable rumours around one of Apple's hottest secrets.
Apple has always led the field when it comes to consumer tablet technology, but with enterprise-grade tablets and hybrids from rival vendors finally beginning to gain traction (not least Microsoft, with the Surface Pro, and its OEM partners), rumours persist that Apple is planning its own iPad-driven assault on the sector.
Flying in the face of the company's historic insouciance towards the enterprise, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced a partnership with IBM in 2014 to "transform enterprise mobility", which so far has seen little concrete development. The iPad and iPhone were mentioned specifically as the target of "enterprise solutions including native apps, developed from the ground up", but this seemed more a hardware than a software move.
Nevertheless, speculation about an iPad Pro began way back in November 2013, when Apple's latest iPad launched, and was known as the iPad Air. Adding a specific model name was reminiscent of the laptop range of MacBooks, i.e. the cheaper, consumer-grade MacBook Air versus the higher-specced stylings of the MacBook Pro.
Since then, 'sources close to the project' have reported various details that are now being mentioned so often they're being taken somewhat as gospel.
The iPad Pro, it is said, will sport a 12.9-inch screen, compared to the iPad Air's 9.7-inch viewing area, or the iPad Mini's 7.9-inches, with Bloomberg covering an apparent delay of screen production at Apple's supplier's in March 2015.
The latest rumour even concerns a new Apple patent for a stylus, which will apparently contain a camera. This would enable the new stylus to identify surfaces it passes over, and make it able to replicate the feel of those materials via the same kind of haptic feedback found in the Apple Watch.
Bloomberg reported that production of the iPad Pro was supposed to have begun much earlier this year, a reveal at this year's Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) seemingly the original aim.
What are the specs?
One would obviously expect a beefier microprocessor in an iPad Pro - somewhere between the iPad Air 2's Apple A8X, 64-bit 1.5GHz tri-core and the MacBook Pro's 2.2GHz, quad-core Intel Core i7 Haswell.
Rumoured specific specs are an A8X processor and 2GB of RAM.
Apple convention dictates if it's a tablet it probably won't run an Intel processor, but the jury's still out as to whether Apple may even follow Microsoft's lead particularly closely and feature some kind of peripheral plug-in ability.
The following image was discovered on Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo, and appears to show a new Apple tablet with a port resembling either an extra Apple Lightning adapter (likely) or a micro USB port (unlikely, and enough to make Steve Jobs rotate fitfully in his grave).
The prospect of a hybridised tablet and laptop from Apple is a genuinely interesting one. While Microsoft's Surface is showcasing how well it can be done (now with the Windows 10 operating system to bridge the form factors on a software as well as a hardware level), it can be argued that convertible tablets still haven't been designed and executed in a seamless and perfect way.
Who else but Apple to make an attempt at such an experience?
In 2014, JP Morgan remarked that it believed Apple was missing out on a "$63bn market opportunity" by refusing to embrace an increasingly lucrative hybrid market and, instead, sticking to making separate devices in the iPad or MacBook ranges that don't fully ‘replace the laptop'.
The only remaining issue is in the operating system: MacBooks still running Mac OS and iPads still powered by iOS. Apple has made little effort to make the two operating systems truly work together in the way that Microsoft has taken with Windows 10 (even quietly canning the slimmed-down stylings of the ARM-based Windows RT, which was clearly once designed to rival iOS, in favour of Win 32 across the board).
An iPad Pro that could fulfil its potential, then, would only be truly possible if Apple began taking a serious look at its software ecosystem. The fact the company may be considering such action is also borne out by recent comments by microprocessor analyst Jim Turley, who believes Apple may be going all-in with ARM and moving away from Intel.
As it stands, though, it seems at least reasonable - given the evidence - to expect a bigger, higher-powered (and more expensive than ever) iPad to emerge before the end of 2015.