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The Next Step in Tablet Functionality May Be Emerging

In the five years since Apple’s original iPad was released, the tablet market has posted remarkable growth, followed by a subsequent split between high-end tablets typified by Apple’s offering and masses of low cost models from nearly every OEM and white box PC manufacturer. Over those same five years, tablet shipments have essentially leveled off and Apple has seen interest in its iPad cannibalized by large screened smartphones, such as its latest iPhone 6 generation, as well as growth in Apple’s own Mac business. The iPad, as it turns out, has been a good device for many seeking a well-built tablet for content consumption and limited creation capabilities for most of its users. The well-supported app store for iPad has evolved to include versions of Microsoft Office as well as mobile versions of Apple’s own iMovie and Garage Band media editing and creation apps.

Most apps available for the iPad do not fully utilize the hardware capabilities of even older generation models and Apple has even offered its latest iOS updates for models as far back as the second-generation iPad 2. The result is that many buyers of Apple’s tablets have not found a need to upgrade even four-year-old devices and sales of iPad have declined each quarter (on a year-over-year basis) for more than a year.

At Apple’s 2015 World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the company highlighted a number of new iPad-specific feature additions to iOS 9 – which will be available in the fall of 2015 – to perhaps extend the capabilities of the iPad to perform tasks in a manner similar to a standard laptop PC. One of the biggest criticisms about the iPad up until now is the inability to see two apps at the same time, making referencing information or data from other apps a cumbersome process of swiping between apps. Another issue is the challenge of using a finger for precision selection in absence of a cursor and trackpad/mouse input.

iOS 9 offers a couple of solutions for viewing two apps simultaneously. The first feature that will be available to most iPad users is called Slide Over, where an app can be pulled into view over another app. With Slide Over, a user can quickly check information or respond to a message; however, the background app will remain suspended until the foreground app is slid off the screen.

More useful is Split View, which extends the capability of Slide Over to offer true dual-app functionality, where both apps can be used simultaneously. Split View also offers the ability to resize each app to occupy any horizontal proportion of the screen.  Unfortunately, Split View only works on Apple’s latest iPad Air 2 model, likely due to the additional RAM that its A8 processor carries.  Obviously, future models of iPad will support Split View and the feature alone may provide the impetus for some users to upgrade.

To address the issue of making precision selections of text, iOS 9 on the iPad will enable two-finger cursor and selection control. Placing two fingers onto the software pop-up keyboard essentially turns it into a trackpad, enabling cursor selections of text. Additionally, the new OS will support shortcuts on the software as well as external hardware keyboards.

Finally, iOS 9 will enable a resizable, repositionable video player window over other apps, for multi-tasking of another sort.

These multi-tasking and keyboard enhancements should enhance the ability to leverage multiple information sources simultaneously while speeding typical tasks during the creation of documents. While these are key additions to iOS 9, it will be up to developers to enable third party apps to take full advantage of these new features. If widely embraced, the iPad, especially future models, will come much closer to bridging the gap between a handy content consumption device and a conventional PC or Mac. The long-term evolution of tablet software (OS and apps) will have far more influence on determining the direction of the tablet market – especially in Apple’s case with its iPad – rather than the continuous improvements in hardware capabilities.

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