What Is the iPad’s Future?

2018 will either mark its return to prominence or prove it can’t overcome its limitations.

Photo illustration: an iPad.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Apple used to dedicate an entire spring media event to the iPad, but in recent years, the iPad has taken a quieter role among the company’s products. While Apple has debuted new models like the iPad Pro and its stylus accessory the Apple Pencil, these announcements have typically piggybacked on other events with an iPhone or Mac focus. Apple has never been afraid of cannibalization, and it seemed that the iPad was being swallowed by its smaller and larger siblings.

On Tuesday morning, though, Apple brought back the iPad event as part of a set of education-focused announcements in Chicago. The event came as a surprise: The company only sent out invitations less than two weeks ago. Many correctly surmised, based on the invitation art and supply chain reports, that it would center around a new, possibly cheaper iPad, but after so long sitting on the sidelines, it also raised the possibility the iPad was returning to a prominent spot in Apple’s product lineup.

Tuesday, we learned what that device would be. Apple’s new 9.7-inch iPad features Touch ID, an A10 fusion chip, and an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and HD FaceTime camera. It also includes support for the Apple Pencil, something previously limited to the larger iPad Pro. With 10 hours of battery life and a reduced price tag of $299 for students ($329 for non-student consumers), Apple is hoping that the tablet will be a worthy competitor to Google’s affordably priced Chromebooks, which have rocketed in popularity over the past five years, particularly in the classroom.

As it turns out, the brunt of Apple’s event was focused on its education-related software updates. These included upgrades to its iWork suite Pages, Keynote, and Numbers—Apple’s word-processing, slideshow-making, and spreadsheet programs—which now support Pencil. Apple also introduced a new app called Schoolwork, an iPad-centric environment that lets teachers digitally assign work to students. Addressing data security concerns, the app keeps student information private to all but the teacher herself. To go along with Schoolwork, developers have a new framework, ClassKit, for making their apps compatible. This will eventually allow teachers to assign homework and projects through a variety of applications when Schoolwork goes live in June, in time for the 2018–19 academic year.

In hindsight, it doesn’t seem surprising how prominent the education programming was. Apple has a rich history of being involved in the education market, dating back to the Apple II in the 1980s, and this is the latest continuation of those efforts. While it was atypical not to offer a livestream of the event, the event itself wasn’t designed for mass market appeal like an iPhone event would be.

That doesn’t preclude the possibility that 2018 will be a big year for the iPad. On the software front, Apple is said to be planning to address performance and stability issues. When we get the first look at iOS 12 at WWDC this summer, it may not have a lot of exciting new features—at least from a consumer standpoint. But the fall could bring more notable hardware updates. According to 9to5Mac, we could see a major iPad update later this year with a hardware redesign akin to the iPhone X; that is, a near bezel-free front display, no home button, and perhaps matching colorways to the iPhone X.

As the iPhone has become Apple’s primary profit source and has encroached on the iPad’s mobile territory, it’s become unclear what the future of the iPad would be. Would it just slip away into obscurity like the iPod? With more education focused software, a cheaper option for students, and (potentially) freshly redesigned iPads later this year, we could see the iPad rise from its stagnant sales. The iPad had aimed to be the anti-PC, the computing device that would succeed our laptops and desktops. Apple’s recent “What’s a computer?” iPad Pro ad reiterates that fact. With new features, new accessories, and a broader variety of price points, perhaps it will regain some of the footing it’s lost during the enlarging of our smartphones. If not, we can be reasonably assured that between our extra-large phones and our ever more lightweight MacBooks, the iPad’s place in the world has been swallowed up.