With iPad Air 2, iPad mini 3, Apple faces product cycle conundrum

Apple's launch of its latest iPads raises questions about where the devices fit in with the overall product lineup. The questions aren't unique to Apple. All tablet makers are about to get squeezed between laptops and phablets.

Apple on Thursday will refresh its latest iPads, including an iPad mini 3 and iPad Air 2, and there's a good bit of discussion about where the products fit in the company's line-up and future growth. The same discussion could cover tablets in general since it's unclear whether there's a role for the devices as smartphones get larger.

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For Apple, the iPad conundrum is going to be magnified as the iPhone 6 Plus inevitably takes away sales from the iPad mini. Of course, Apple doesn't mind the cannibalization. The iPhone basically killed the iPod. At least, Apple kept the cannibalization in the product family.

CNET: Apple iPad event live blog | Previously:  Apple leaks iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 3 specs ahead of launch  |  Apple's latest iPads: Why business use will trump personal

In Apple Orchard, SammyWalrusIV posted a long blog on why Apple should stop selling the iPad mini. The idea makes sense. The argument goes like this: The iPad mini won't be able to compete with Apple's own phablet or commodity Android---and now Windows---tablets. There's also an issue with the iPad mini filling any real void in Apple's product spectrum. The other point in the argument is that an iPad Pro with a 12.9 inch Retina Display would be helpful and the larger device should enable better apps via Apple's partnership with IBM. I made a similar enterprise-heavy argument.

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Credit: Stephen Shankland, CNET

Stratechery's Ben Thompson noted the malaise surrounding Apple's iPad unveiling and agreed the product is at a crossroads. The middle ground iPad occupied in the computing device spectrum is disappearing.

I'd argue that Apple's iPad issue isn't all that unique. In fact, every tablet vendor will face the same issues without the profit margins to cushion the blow. Tablets were a right place at the right time device akin to netbooks. Tablets won't flame out as quickly as netbooks did, but as devices like Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 and the iPhone 6 Plus take hold it's hard to argue that their larger-screened cousins are a must have. Tablets get consistently voted out of my backpack when I travel.

Perhaps, there are tweener devices, but Microsoft's Surface and Lenovo's Yoga are interesting computing options, but hardly enticing the masses---business or consumer.

What's really going on here is an accelerated product cycle. Netbooks took the tech world by storm and flamed out. Tablets peaked early and now face slowing growth for the foreseeable future. Does anyone really see smartwatches having a shelf life of more than a few years? Staying power and technology product categories won't mesh going forward.

Devices---at least until we start embedding chips and mini-computers in our bodies---are going to have short shelf lives. In some cases, devices will be almost throwaway. The reality is that the iPad is just a data point in a much larger theme. The tech giants that thrive will be the ones that can stand up products and cook up something new continually.

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