CEO Tim Cook and other top Apple executives today unveiled a larger tablet dubbed the iPad Pro, a revamped Apple TV and near the tail of a two-hour-long event, new iPhones.
At a much bigger venue than in the past -- San Francisco's 100-year-old Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, a hall where the Apple II debuted in 1977 -- Apple kicked off what Cook called a "monster roll-out."
For his fifth iPhone introduction since taking the reins from co-founder Steve Jobs in 2011, Cook kept to tradition by opening the event and then introducing other Apple executives, including COO Jeff Williams, marketing chief Philip Schiller and Eddy Cue, who leads the Internet software and services group, to carry much of the load.
But Cook started by strutting not the latest models of his company's biggest money maker, but the newest iPad in the five-year-old tablet line. "We asked ourselves: How can we take iPad even further?" Cook asked, then answered with, "We have the biggest news in iPad since the iPad."
A bigger iPad
He then handed off the larger-screen iPad Pro to Schiller, who trumpeted the specifications. "[It's] the biggest we've ever built in an iOS device," said Schiller of the 12.9-in. display, hitting the screen size mark rumored over the last few weeks. He also touted the full-sized, on-screen keyboard and new iOS 9 features that will support larger displays, like split-screen, even as he asserted several times that it's better than a traditional notebook.
The iPad Pro will be powered by the new Apple-designed A9X SoC (system-on-a-chip) that includes a 64-bit processor Schiller claimed is faster than 80% of the mobile PCs that shipped in the past year. The Pro weighs in at 1.6-lbs., just slightly heavier than the 2010 original.
And as several analysts bet earlier this week, Schiller also unveiled a keyboard and stylus -- dubbed Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil, respectively -- that effectively "Surface-izes" the bigger iPad, making it a rival for the current benchmark, Microsoft's Surface Pro.
Some analysts dampened the comparison between the two, even as Microsoft enthusiasts knocked Apple for following, not leading.
"It's still an iPad," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. "That's a big difference."
For Dawson and others, the starting positions of the two devices made all the difference: The iPad Pro originated from a pure tablet, one that ran a mobile-centric OS, while the Surface Pro was quickly positioned by Microsoft as a full notebook that just happened to have a tablet foundation, and was powered by a desktop operating system.
"Apple isn't trying to create one device to rule them all," Dawson said.
The keyboard, which draws power from the iPad, connects to the side of the tablet, and showed Chiclet-like keys with less travel than a standard notebook keyboard. Both factors are admittedly similar to the Surface Pro's Type Cover.
Other experts weighed on different aspects of the iPad Pro. "A lot of people were assuming that this was going to be an enterprise device, but Apple spent all of its time talking about creativity," said Van Baker of Gartner.
The one exception, and in itself an unusual turn: Schiller introduced Microsoft's Kirk Koenigsbauer, who leads the Office team, to demonstrate Office on the iPad Pro. Reactions to Koenigsbauer's appearance was mixed. While he got a scattered round of applause from the audience after a few ticks of silence, those on Twitter were more direct.
"The new Microsoft. Promote a product that is a direct rip-off of what you did years ago," tweeted Paul Thurrott, a long-time Microsoft watcher and blogger, referring to the Surface Pro.
"Microsoft needs train of thought on optimizing its applications for all competing platforms, mobile or not. Good to see them up there," countered Ryan Reith, an IDC analyst, also on Twitter.
But maybe the best comments were from Nick Kolakowski, a Slashdot editor, who tweeted, "Ballmer just threw a chair against a wall, and he doesn't even work there anymore," and a follow-up, "Zombie Steve Jobs lurches onstage, moaning with rage, to take out the Adobe and Microsoft people."
Carolina Milanesi, chief of research and head of U.S. business for Kantar WorldPanel Comtech, disagreed with Baker. "That's what they normally do," she said, when asked whether Apple focused on the creative and consumption angles of the bigger tablet. "They never mention the word 'enterprise,' they never label stuff."
But Apple did bang the drum for more than just creative tasks or content consumption, Milanesi argued, pointing to an on-stage demonstration by a physician of how she would use an iPad Pro. "The health part of it, just as with the Apple Watch, that's clearly enterprise."
The iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard will go on sale in November, according to Schiller -- a much longer delay between announcement and availability than the Apple norm -- with the tablet starting at $799 for a model with 32GB of storage space, the same price as the lowest-end Surface Pro 3, although Microsoft's tablet comes with 64GB of storage. Other iPad Pro models will run $949 (128GB) and $1,079 (128GB with wireless connectivity). The stylus and keyboard will cost $99 and $169, respectively.
An entry-level iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard -- like Microsoft, Apple is not bundling the two -- will thus run $968, or nearly as much as a 13-in. Retina-less MacBook Air, which also boasts 128GB of SSD (solid-state drive) storage.
Apple also dropped the price of the iPad Mini 2 to $269, and introduced an iPad Mini 4 at $399.
Returning to the stage, Cook walked the audience through the revamping of the Apple TV, a business that the company has formerly called just a "hobby."
"I'd like to talk about an even larger screen, and that's your TV," said Cook at the start of the segment. "The future of TV is apps," he argued, adding, "We believe it is the future of television."
The Apple TV features a redesigned user interface (UI) and a new remote that allows both touch -- with the glass surface built into upper section of the device -- and voice, via Siri, Apple's digital assistant technology long available in the iPhone, at a press of a button.
Its new operating system, which Cue called tvOS -- apparently Apple's new nomenclature is to drop a lowercase description in front of "OS," as in "watchOS" for the Apple Watch -- is "based on iOS, and built for the living room."
Like Cook, he talked up the app angle for the Apple TV and tvOS, briefly showing stills of the HBO, Netflix and Hulu apps, as well as the Guitar Hero game. Cue then handed things over to several developers who demonstrated upcoming games, several of which originated on the iPhone.
The new Apple TV will be priced at $149 and $199 for 32GB and 64GB storage models, respectively, and will slide in above the existing $69 device. Developers will receive a preview of tvOS today; the new Apple TV goes on sale next month.
Ninety minutes into the event, Cook finally got around to the new iPhones. "How do you follow the success of [the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus]?" he asked, acknowledging that he "had been asked that question a few times," referring to Wall Street's skepticism that Apple will be able to reproduce the strong sales of the 2014 models.
The new smartphones, tagged as the iPhone 6S and the iPhone 6S Plus -- following the usual "off-year" monikers -- are completely new, Cook maintained, even though externally they look identical to last year's versions.
Back on stage, Schiller introduced 3D Touch, iOS's name for something similar to the Force Touch trackpad that debuted earlier this year on the new 12-in. Retina MacBook. Like Force Touch, 3D Touch is pressure sensitive and features some limited haptic feedback.
3D Touch works on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus home screen, and with some first-party apps, like Mail and Calendar. Firmer pressure on the side of the iPhone, for instance, shows active apps for quick switching, eliminating the double-press of the Home button. A few third-party apps, like Instagram and Dropbox, will also support 3D Touch off the bat.
The phones are powered by the new 64-bit A9 SoC, which is 70% faster than last year's silicon, said Schiller, and includes an integrated motion coprocessor. The camera has also been beefed up to 12-megapixels able to take 4K video -- a first for the iPhone -- that produce massive files. At 8 million pixels per frame, 4K video will quickly exhaust the meager 16GB of the entry-level 6S and 6S Plus phones.
One new feature, dubbed Live Photos, got wows from the analysts in the audience. Because the camera takes snaps slightly before and after the actual displayed image, a press on a photo animates it, showing, say, water flowing in a shot of a waterfall. "Live Photos will demo very well to friends and family," tweeted Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies. "Helps make the new devices more desirable."
"Live photo is awesome. Nothing else to say," added Ben Thompson, the independent analyst behind Stratechery.com.
As expected, Apple priced the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus at the usual subsidized prices starting at $199 and $299 for 16GB models, with $100 step-ups with more storage space. Last year's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, meanwhile, drop by $100 each, to $99 and $199, respectively.
But in a nod to the rapid changes in mobile carriers' strategies -- under which customers are pushed to pay for their smartphones on installment plans, freeing the operators from supporting subsidies -- Apple also priced the new devices in that fashion at $27 (iPhone 6S) and $31 (iPhone 6S Plus) monthly during a 24-month stretch.
Apple's iPhone Upgrade program
Apple also announced its own payment plan, the iPhone Upgrade Program, that offers the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus at $32 and $37 per month, respectively, with AppleCare+ thrown in the deal and the right to get a new iPhone annually.
The upgrade program, said Dawson, is important.
"Carriers may be kicking themselves, because by moving to installment plans they're training people that they don't need carriers to subsidize the iPhone," Dawson said. "They've handed Apple this huge opportunity," he added, to eliminate the carriers from the smartphone-buying equation.
"That's a very powerful lock-in. People who want an iPhone may never go into, for example, an AT&T store, and many customers would rather deal with Apple than with their carrier."
Because the program is available only in Apple's own U.S. stores, it removes the influence of the carriers, who in <i>their</i> stores pitch alternatives, primarily those running Google's Android. Getting a customer onto the upgrade deal locks them even more effectively into Apple's universe.
Preorders kick off Saturday, Sept. 12, with sales starting Friday, Sept. 25. iOS 9, which will be pre-installed on the new models but available for download on older iPhones, will release a week from today, Sept. 16.