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The iPad 3rd-gen's "miraculous transformation" from magical device to object of shame

Anyone who buys Apple products will eventually experience deep frustration with Apple the company. It's inevitable and predictable, and usually brief. It also disproportionately affects those who consider themselves loyalists, fans and enthusiasts -- those of us who bleed six colors, as it were. The sense of a personal relationship, a bargain or a deal with the brand is what makes the perceived offenses feel so personal. They aren't, of course, but that's how we feel.

As was the case with the original iPhone's dramatic price cut two months after launch, the company's response is often simply "that's technology." Things are going to change quickly, and from time to time that means early adopters or may experience some mild turbulence. To my mind, that's a different (and lesser) sort of anxiety than the "Apple is messing with my livelihood" freakout over Final Cut Studio's evaporation making way for Final Cut X, but the core feeling is the same: "We had a deal, Apple, and you betrayed us."

That sense of betrayal is quite strong right now, as the iPad 4th generation's introduction has set the teeth of some v3 buyers on edge. Apple may or may not be taking a lenient stance on upgrades; we noted yesterday the reports of a discretionary policy in allowing up to 30 days for iPad 3rd-gen exchanges. Early adopter regret is clearly evident in our former TUAW colleague Christina Warren's op-ed for Mashable, where she shares both denial and anger over the introduction of the fourth generation full-size iPad only seven months after she bought a maxed-out 3rd generation Retina iPad.

I have nothing but fondness and respect for Christina, and I don't doubt the sincerity of her personal reaction to having her 3rd-gen iPad lose both bragging rights and resale value. But let's recap her relationship to new technology, in her own words: "I'm an early adopter. Most iPad 3 owners won't consider doing anything with their iPad 3; they'll keep using it until it stops working (or the new iPad 5 is released in six months), so I recognize this is a specific rant. Still, people like me are Apple's most loyal customers. Eventually, this sort of thing tends to trickle down to everyone else."

Perhaps the "trickle-down" frustration from fans to customers was valid back when Apple sold expensive computers to a tiny fraction of the PC market. Maybe it was even true when iPods began to break out to the wider consumer electronics landscape. For the Apple of today -- the massive, mass-market behemoth -- it's simply irrelevant.

The pattern of early adoption, resale and racing on to the next new thing that Christina describes in her piece makes her a stark outlier among Apple's modern-day worldwide customer base; likewise, the angry, frustrated "loyal Apple users" who are now so aggrieved about the quick refresh of the iPad represent a tiny minority of the consumers who have purchased those 100 million iPads (to say nothing of the education and enterprise buyers, who are still buying iPad 2s by the pallet).

Most of the argument in favor of feeling aggrieved and shortchanged by the quick iPad turn coalesces around expectations. Apple "always" releases one new iPad per year; it's "always" in the spring; the sun "always" rises in the east. Of course, this attitude confuses patterns with promises; they are different things.

Did customer expectations get confounded by the release of a newer iPad model less than a year after the previous one? Yep. Was this yearly tick-tock something Apple ever committed to preserving in perpetuity? Not at all. People make plans and purchases based on certain assumptions (or by asking one of their tech-savvy friends); when those assumptions turn out to be unfounded, they may be upset. But their assumptions are not Apple's problem, except insofar as they express their frustration by not buying Apple products. Which, we must acknowledge, they are free to do -- their protest move will simply lessen the overwhelming pre-order demand and inevitable sellout delays on the 4th gen iPad by a tiny fraction of a percent.

Of course, feelings aren't about rational utility and Econ 101; iPad 3 owners are entitled to have the reactions they have, and no amount of arguing will change that. But even a casual review of the engineering and marketing circumstances indicates that the short-cycle iPad refresh was the least evil of Apple's options here.

In her frustration over the new iPad, Christina detours into an appraisal of the platonic ideal iPad 3 and a half that Apple "should have released" back in March. "In many ways," she writes, "this [fourth generation iPad] is the product Apple should have released as the iPad 3. I understand chips might not have been ready, pricing might not have been ideal -- but seriously, this is clearly what the iPad 3 should have been."

Well, sure, chips might not have been ready. But release it anyway -- engineering be dashed! No, wait, sorry, that doesn't make any sense. We can't on the one hand castigate Apple for releasing an iPad 3rd-gen that was underpowered for its HiDPI display and lacked the Lightning port and then on the other hand admit that those upgraded components weren't actually production-ready. We can wish for things to be ready when we want them, but unfortunately technology doesn't work quite like that.

But even if we were to give this position the benefit of every doubt -- assume that Apple had the 4th-gen iPad on the shelf shrinkwrapped and ready to go, but chose to release the 3rd-gen anyway -- there's one huge reason why it had to be that way.

Let's suppose that Phil Schiller and his marketing team were well aware of Christina's yet-to-be-realized frustration back in March of this year, and indeed for many months before that (knowing, as we do, that Apple's product development cycles cover years rather than weeks). Assume as well that the iPhone 5 launch date couldn't shift forward to let it hit with the iPad 3/4 in March. What could Apple do? "Let's go ahead and ship the Lightning version of the iPad now," says Phil, "and we'll catch up with the iPhone 5 in September."

Our imaginary Phil Schiller is then forcibly removed from Apple's Cupertino campus, never to darken its doors again. Why? Because when you have a single product with revenues that handily surpass the GDP of Ecuador, you do. Not. Mess with that. The iPhone may look like a smartphone, but it is actually a revenue machine. Every single decision Apple makes today has to be framed against the question "is it good for the iPhone?" If not, it simply does not happen. Somewhere down the line the creative destruction instincts will kick back in and Apple will design its own iPhone killer, but right now every quarter's results and more than 2/3rds of Apple's dollars depend on the iPhone's desirability in the market.

Introducing a Lightning-based iPad six months before the iPhone 5 announcement fails that test. Showing the new interface port would make every iPhone sale between March and September much, much harder -- consumers could not suspend their disbelief, knowing as they would that they were getting something soon to be outdated.

Even though the blogosphere had begun to show convincing examples of the Lightning port as early as May, a tentative hint is worlds away from "Here's the new iPad, and as you may notice it's got a different connector. Hey, where'd you all go?" That's two quarters down the tubes, and millions of customers lost to other mobile ecosystems. iPad sales are nice, but they're not the franchise; iPhone is the franchise.

Note that when Apple introduces dramatic new technologies nowadays, they inevitably come to the iPhone first. Siri? iPhone. Lightning? iPhone. Retina? iPhone -- and that's before it got to the MacBook Pro, for goodness' sakes. iCloud and LTE have some wiggle room on this; one reason LTE hit the iPad before the iPhone is that it's much easier to solve power problems if you're engineering a device that is basically a giant battery with a screen glued to it, and it's not an Apple innovation (in fact the iPhone was quite a ways behind the market).

Why not just wait, then, and hold back on the iPad refresh more than seven months until after the iPhone 5 is launched? Because if you're going to confound those customer expectations of annual upgrades one way or another, doing it by delaying the new & improved product is the wrong way to go if you're Apple.

The iPad 2 had run its course as the flagship by the beginning of 2012, and there was enough value in the 3rd-gen (Siri, LTE, and that luscious Retina display) to retake the tablet lead, especially with Surface, Amazon and Android beginning to sniff at the iPad's heels. Apple would rather give people something good right now and better later, instead of lamely claiming that the iPad 2 is still the best thing going well past its sell-by date. No, given the choice of waiting or pushing out the 3rd-gen, Apple made the right call.

Often, when we look to justify our anger, we step to righteousness: it's not about me, it's about how this is bad for Apple. Christina's worry is that consumers now will be gunshy about buying into new iPads if they think the new one is coming within moments. She's not convinced that the quick turn is an aberration; she worries that sub-annual iPad refreshes may now be the norm.

"If that upgrade cycle is compressed," she says, "I believe some consumers may just choose to continue waiting. Take iPad 2 owners, for example. Rather than running to upgrade to an iPad 4 this Christmas, I could see some owners choosing to wait. After all, what if Apple releases a new tablet in April? Or June? Why not just wait? Wait too long and you're up against the next refresh cycle. Now Apple has missed recapturing that customer in a fiscal year. That's a bad thing."

Another cognitive miss here: a broken pattern can in fact be an exception to the reigning rule rather than an example of a new rule. As one of the commenters on Christina's piece points out, just because this iPad came early that doesn't mean the next one will; in fact, given the lifespan of the original iPod 30-pin connector, it could be a decade before Apple is ready to move past Lightning to the next big thing. Calling a reset and shifting the annual upgrade cycle for the iPad to September from March actually means better uptake for the holiday sales rush, not worse.

There are some real fiscal consequences to the early upgrade for those who were not planning to hold onto their iPads indefinitely. Christina rightly points out that iPad 3 owners who were expecting to resell their devices are now facing far lower returns than they "reasonably" might have expected to get. While iPads bought over the past two or four weeks may be exchangeable, people who were depending on resale arbitrage have gotten shorted on their bet.

This, too, gets chalked up to the difference between patterns and promises. Nobody guaranteed that your spend on that iPad 3 would be recoverable -- expecting to get some fixed percentage of your money back on the device is entirely on you. It certainly is frustrating, but it's not at all clear that it can be pinned down as Apple's fault. Apple sold you an iPad so you could use it as an iPad, not as an investment vehicle.

There are also hints of a valid argument in the notion that the 3rd-gen iPad is actually not a fully baked product, with issues of heat, weight and speed. You can bounce this back and forth, but the fact is that if you were happy with your iPad 3 last week then the failings and flaws you see now are entirely driven by your awareness of the new shiny thing, not by any realistic standard of performance.

Again, I don't want to delegitimize the frustration that these folks feel -- feelings are always valid. It's when we reject ownership of our feelings and decide to pin them on something outside our control that things get slippery. Taking the irate stance that Apple's shafted you personally by introducing something new "too soon" may be an understandable reaction. But it's not reasonable to blame Apple for acting in its own best interests, and nothing here suggests that there was something else the company could have done to prevent the marginal pain.

Also, in terms of relative utility, if it needs to be said: The iPad 3rd-gen you bought in March, April or May is every bit as functional now as it was last week; it runs the same apps, shows the same videos and docks with the same peripherals (something that the new 4th-gen iPad, for the record, cannot yet do). Christina's argument that the "high-end games" will now target the 4th-gen is a hypothesis, not evidence; iOS and the vast majority of apps will continue to support the 3rd-gen and the iPad 2 for quite some time to come. Millions of users are still happily using their original iPads, and they may not know or care that anyone is torqued about having a 3rd-gen that's no longer top of the charts.

Let's also remember that this is an iPad, not a heart transplant. We're talking about something that many may want but nobody needs, after all. Having the luxury of buying a new iPad -- whether it's once a year, every two years, every six months, whenever -- is a remarkable thing in itself, and an opportunity that billions of people will never have. Including, most likely, the people that built the very iPad you're pining for.

You can read some other savvy reactions to the 3rd gen/4th gen transition from Don McAllister, Fraser Spiers and Harry Marks.