The iPad 3 is not the iPad 3. It’s just the iPad. And that small point is about to be a huge pain for consumers.
It’s clear what Apple is trying to do: they want to get away from the numbers game that’s fueled the computer industry (and they’ve done nothing but provoke) since the beginning. They want "iPad" to be synonymous with "oven," "car" or maybe even "Kleenex," to become an entity with a deeper cultural permanence, a product with the timeless utility of a Cuisinart.
From a brand perspective, the approach absolutely makes sense, as my colleague Austin Carr points out. Consumers can still distinguish the product—"Do you have the new iPad?"—and Apple can sidestep the inevitable mouthful of the iPad 22. So what’s the problem? The problem is that technology is still accelerating too quickly for generalized appliance-level branding. The iPad has more than doubled and doubled in speed since the original launched in 2010. Did your oven do that? Can you bake a pizza at 3,000 degrees? And if you could, would you still call that device your oven?
Apple’s solution is a car industry solution. We know Corvettes are fast and look sexy, so when you want something fast and sexy, you buy a Corvette. If you want to learn what’s under the hood—the precise torque, the 0-60 down to a tenth of a second—that information is out there, too. The system works, and it’s almost a perfect analog of the silicon-driven technology industry. But the Corvette of 1960 still drives on the roads of today. The iPad of 2010 can’t even run the apps of 2012, which is especially absurd as it’s Apple who owns the road system.
iPad branding isn’t actually a problem. The problem is that Apple buys into their own branding within their infrastructure. The App Store is a universal market for every iOS device. Apple differentiates iPhone apps from iPad apps, but in their quest for universal branding, they don’t differentiate iPad 1 apps from iPad 3 apps, or iPhone 3G and 4S apps. Developers themselves can’t flag their own calculation-heavy software as incapable of running on older, slower hardware, even if they know it to be true (beyond the notable hack of requiring the use of the iPad 1’s nonexistent camera). Put another way, the next generation of iPad apps will crush older iPads under their weight—and thus rendering a gadget you thought was going to be with you for a while buggy and slow, far before its time.
Developers can’t stop their own customers from buying iPad software that they know can’t possibly run on an iPad, some iPad.
This universal device branding, supported by a universal iOS infrastructure, is a facade for fractured technology. A consumer can buy an app with the touch of a finger, sure, but when that app stutters or crashes on their last-gen iPad, the experience is serving no one. The popular sentiment as of late has been to attack Google’s Android OS as fragmented, deployed in all sorts of various manifestations across countless pieces of hardware making it unpredictable and hard to use. That’s a fair and needed criticism. Android is fragmented, and more than the modern Windows PC, by the fundamental nature of its business plan and the quickly evolving mobile hardware market.
With iOS, a tightly controlled manufacturing chain and the App Store, Apple has the upper hand in usability and product clarity. That is, so long as they don’t blur the lines differentiating their own products so much.