Will The Next iPad be “iPad 3” or “iPad 2S”?

Word is that Apple will be holding an event the first week in March, and the expectation is that it is to announce the next iPad. Given that iPads generally get announced around this time of year, the speculation now turns to “what will it be”. I’ve read some speculation that it will be yet-a-new-design, with a different case design that is supposedly even thinner. The have also been rumours about a smaller 7″ design. But will the next iPad be that different?

What we can bet on is that it will sport a newer and faster processor, possibly even a quad-core, as well as a more powerful graphics processor. It will likely have more internal memory, and possibly more internal storage (I’m hoping for that myself). A retinue display is certainly possible. I would expect the cameras will also be upgraded, along with newer/better radios, and an increase in battery. All of these changes will come with support for Siri. For clarity: I don’t have any sort of inside knowledge. I don’t work for Apple. I have one friend who does, but even if he did have access to this sort of stuff, I wouldn’t ask them about it. What I’m doing is pure guess-work based on what I’ve heard from various bloggers and journalists, using some of my own imagination to guess where things are headed.

I do not expect the next iPad to have a different case or form-factor. Why? Consider the history of Apple: for many of their net-new devices, the second version is often very different from the original. But, the version after that is typically more like the second in appearance. After that, we see alternating “new design” and “updated internals”. The MacBook Air went through this: the second generation was only superficially similar to the first, and the most recent release was an evolution of the second generation, with no meaningful change to the outside. As did the original iPhone: the first iPhone was followed by the far different iPhone 3G, but the third generation 3GS was almost identical on the outside. Then we got the iPhone 4, with a new design, followed up an updated iPhone 4S. I fully expect that iPhone 5 that will come out this year will have a brand new design, and it’s successor will be an evolution again.

The iPad has started down that same path. The iPad 2 was very different in design when compared to the original iPad. But I also expect that Apple will stick to the plan, and release an “iPad 2S” or something that builds on the iPad 2 name. The exterior will look virtually identical. The only visible difference could be the retina display. Otherwise, I expect the thing to look pretty much the same.

So why would Apple do this? Why not come out with another brand-new and completely different device? One reason: accessories. Apple has a healthy ecosystem of cases, covers, keyboards and what-not for the iPad 2. By retaining the same physical design, Apple keeps that ecosystem alive for another year before they come out with a net-new device in 2013. The iPhone 3G to 3GS upgrade ensured that the accessories were still good for another year. The iPhone 4 to 4S upgrade kept that selection of accessories alive. The MacBook Air 2nd to 3rd generation upgrade did the same.

Another reason: development cost. By using the same case, and tooling for the same, they make it a bit easier, cheaper and faster to get the next model to market. Sure, the Foxconn factories are very, very flexible, and retooling for a consumer device isn’t nearly as big a deal as it is for something more complex like a car. But why spend the money if you don’t have to? Continuing with the same aluminum enclosure and the same glass face means some cost savings.

The second reason also leads into a 3rd: that the iPad 2 will remain in production. By keeping the design, Apple can continue to offer the iPad 2 alongside the new iPad 2S, using the same assembly lines and taking advantage of the investment in the tooling and parts that are still common to both.

By making the next iPad an upgrade to the iPad 2, Apple has a slightly lower manufacturing cost. Both devices can share the rich ecosystem of accessories. And Apple can offer a range of iPads, varying in both price and features. It allows Apple to move down-market a bit, without going into deep-discount mode (like they’ve done with the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4). I do expect that the on-going iPad 2 will see some reduction in available models (most likely Apple will drop the top-end versions, possibly sticking with just the 16GB and 32GB WiFi, as well as the 16GB 3G models, and dropping the rest.

So there’s my guess: an iPad 2S, coming in 32GB, 64GB and 128GB WiFi and 3G versions, with the iPad 2 continuing with 16GB WiFi, a 32GB WiFi and a 16GB 3G. In the iPad 2S, upgraded processor and graphics, bigger/better battery, better cameras, possibly a Retina display, and support for Siri. Which now means I’ll be wrong, and we’ll see a completely new machine offered in 10″ and 7″ sizes :-). I’m not likely to complain either way.