At its March 21 press event, Apple is expected to refresh its 9.7-inch iPad line. The new tablet will very likely borrow some new features from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which went on sale last November.
The rumor mill says the new 9.7-inch tablet will feature an external magnetic interface ("Smart Connector") to which a hardware keyboard can be easily attached. It’ll support the Apple Pencil stylus for sketching or writing on the screen.
The new device will get two additional stereo speakers (for a total of four), as the iPad Pro did. It’s said to feature the addition of a flash for its rear-facing camera. And it’s a safe bet that the device will get a faster processor, and will support Apple Pay.
But a lot remains unclear about the new device, even its name. It could be the next in the Air line—the iPad Air 3. Or, it might be classed in the iPad Pro line.
This new iPad comes amid tough times for Apple’s tablet business.
IPad sales have been in decline for the past two years. Sales declined 25% in Apple’s fourth quarter 2015, which included the holiday shopping season. In the previous quarter, it sold 9.9 million iPads, marking a 19.5% decline from the year-earlier quarter, and hitting below the 10-million unit mark for the first time since Q4 2011.
Apple has been unable to defy the overall shrinkage of the worldwide tablet market. IDC said in December that worldwide tablet shipments would reach 211.3 million units in 2015, down 8.1% from 2014. The new numbers, IDC said, follow three consecutive quarters of declining shipments in 2015.
Analysts say it's the large smartphone, or "phablet (phone-tablet hybrid)," that has taken the biggest bite out of tablet sales.
Somewhat ironically, Apple’s entries into the large smartphone market—the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus—have been hugely popular and have become the thrust behind Apple’s growth during the past two years. The numbers suggest that many of the people who might normally have bought an iPad bought a big iPhone instead.
Can a new 9.7-inch iPad do anything to change that dynamic? In the consumer market, probably not.
But the new device could be seen as the latest step in Apple’s retooling of the iPad for the business market. It may hit the bullseye for some buyers who liked the new business-friendly features in the iPad Pro, but balked at that device's huge 12.9-inch size.
Aside from the new iPad, Apple is expected to unveil a new 4-inch iPhone, some new Watch bands, and probably a couple of surprises at the press event.