The 2GB iPad Pro shocker: What it might mean

23 March 2016, 05:45

The hype was strong, but accurate, and prior to yesterday few people expected the new 9.7in iPad Pro to contain just 2GB of RAM. But it does. The early benchmarks at Ars Technica prove it.

The slightly older and larger 12.9in iPad Pro has 4GB of RAM. So why a reduction in the smaller Pro model – especially when the more consumer-friendly Air 2 has featured 2GB for nearly one and a half years?

Where’s the progress?

The importance of memory
We’re still in an era when an increase in RAM on mobile devices is important. The difference between 512MB and 1GB is like night and day. Even the difference between 1GB and 2GB in iPad Air 1 and 2 makes a massive difference to user experience.

So again, why 2GB in the newest, greatest model – a model that’s destined to have a usable life of at least two years, at which time the iOS operating system will have reached version 11?

I’ve got a crazy theory that, in the world of Apple, might not be so crazy after all. But first, let’s get the other, more standard theories out of the way.

First is that the law of diminishing returns means that, for a predominantly single or dual-tasking device such as the iPad, increasing RAM beyond 2GB might not provide such dramatic dividends. It’s a large outlay from Apple’s cost-per-unit budget for comparatively little reward.

Then there’s the fact that RAM is relatively expensive, and subject to dramatic market fluctuations. It’s because of this that no computer manufacturer – from Atari through to Apple – has ever been generous with RAM. Maybe Apple’s in-house analysts have declared that the company should proceed cautiously.

Efficiency drive
But my crazy theory is that this is all about efficiency. Never forget that Apple controls the software as well as the hardware.

Expect the upcoming Worldwide Developers Conference in June to push developers towards making apps that run in less RAM, with fewer CPU cycles and that work better in a multitasking environment (technically a dual-tasking environment). Expect the next release of iOS to provide new and useful ways of facilitating this.

Be like an energy-efficient lightbulb, Apple might say: Do the same thing, with much less. Apple took a brave stance with the issue of overly aggressive website advertising, which was killing the mobile browsing experience, and maybe they’re doing the same here, saying: We just can’t allow the kind of wild inefficiencies that define and perhaps even drag down desktop computing.

In the same breath, spec lists aren’t growing in the same way they used to. Moore’s Law has screeched to a halt this year, for the first time since the CPU was invented. Times really are a-changin’.

Is Apple preparing for this kind of future that, for the first time ever, is not driven by spec lists? Is Apple drawing a line in the sand for its vision of post-desktop computing?

Developing like it’s 1985
Asking developers to focus on efficiency is brave, but also something that Apple is in a position to pull-off.

It fits with a theme introduced by the Apple Watch. It’s no secret that the apps boom for the Watch hasn’t happened. Even the new Apple TV leaves it in the dust when it comes to sheer number of apps. One reason is that developers find it difficult if not impossible to successfully develop for the Watch because of limited resources. I’ve heard stories of thousands of abandoned Xcode projects – developers trying hard, and failing, and just giving up. Watch apps can take 10 seconds to start from cold, for example, and even longer to drag the information via Bluetooth from the iPhone. Yet it’s clearly possible to create speedy apps because most if not all of Apple’s built-in apps manage to start within seconds, if not instantaneously.

I’ve long had a feeling that Apple considers the internal spec of the Watch to be standardised, which is to say it’s not going to evolve in the same way that the iPhone or iPad did, or indeed in the way that traditional computing has. Don’t get me wrong: Newer versions of the Watch might have faster chips, but not significantly so. Instead, newer versions of the Watch are going to focus on better design, and on innovative health sensors, and – of course – on cool new Watch straps.

In other words, and to return to the theme of efficiency, developers need to find a way to use the Watch, rather than wait for the Watch to become usable. And it might be the same message with the iPad Pro, or indeed any iOS device – 2GB is what you should expect, and we also expect you to play nice with other apps so you can run split-screen alongside them – and not to mention the fundamental OS processes.

It’s reminiscent of the early days of home computing, when the goal was to cram a complete gaming experience into 16Kb of RAM. My first computer was a Commodore Vic-20, with just 5Kb. Programmers managed it. Magical tricks had to be employed. Real thought had to go into development. And the specs of the Watch are incredibly generous in comparison to even desktop computers of 10 years ago leading a cynic to ask what the problem is here.

Apple might be asking for that kind of creativity and hard work all over again – and taking a gamble that developers can – and will – deliver.

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