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iPad soft launches may be the new normal

With today's unannounced retail debut of the iPad mini with Retina display, a whole lot of Apple devotees and critics cried foul. A lot of people seemed confused, simply because an Apple tablet has never launched in such a way. Yes, it's strange for an iPad to launch without a parade in its honor, but it's not unusual for Apple products in general. As the iPad line continues to evolve from a set of devices that must constantly validate its own existence to a core part of Apple's long-term strategy, release practices will fall in line with that of the company's other offerings.

In short, while today's quiet launch may be due in part to low stock of the new slates, we could also be moving toward a future where Apple's tablets are upgraded incrementally on a schedule similar to how MacBooks, the Mac mini and other Apple stalwarts receive their seasonal refreshes.

When a product line is due for a physical facelift or major overhaul -- a new iMac, the Retina Macbook Pro, etc. -- Apple shows it off at an event. But when a device needs a bump in specs to ensure it stays competitive with the its rivals, Apple's online store simply goes down for an hour or two and when it comes back, the more powerful products are in place. A press release is issued; news sites run their impressions; and the public knows about it before lunchtime -- all without a single Apple figurehead taking a stage.

Eventually, Apple will no longer have to prove that the iPad deserves to exist with huge presentations, and I think we're fast approaching that day. I don't think today's soft retail debut was done solely to get us used to the idea of not knowing exactly when a more capable iPad will be available -- the production limitations are likely to blame for this as well -- but I do think that the company may be testing the waters a bit.

2014 is right around the corner, and as Tim Cook has teased, Apple is gearing up to take on new product categories. As it stands today, Apple holds dedicated events for both the iPhone and iPad every year, and crams some news about Mac into these where it can. The company could add events to showcase the all-new products alongside the existing annual upgrade events, but to keep from overwhelming consumer consciousness with constant Apple chatter (Apple has always taken a "less is more" approach when it comes to this), it would make sense for the public to expect the iPad to be upgraded regularly without having to hold an event around it.

The iPhone has always been fighting a much more intense battle in a faster-paced environment that that of the iPad, which means it will likely never graduate to a level where Apple could afford to skip a gold-plated annual event. The iPad, on the other hand, would lose very little by adopting yearly upgrades that come with less hullabaloo, and it would free up the company's event schedule a bit to fight wars on new fronts.

If Apple unveils an iPad Pro (which I think it will), it would be all too easy to upgrade three tablets -- mini, Air and Pro -- with new processors and software updates each year with nothing more than a press release or short preview video to accompany them. In fact, I think this is where Apple was headed when it dropped the numerical label from the third- and fourth-generation iPad, though the decision to basically reinvent the iPad with the new Air meant we never saw that plan fully pan out.

Apple's not there yet, but I can't imagine the day is very far away. We know the iPad isn't going anywhere and we know that the company doesn't make a habit of holding events for every incremental hardware upgrade, so it's just a matter of time before we see those two truths converge.

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