Apple's new iPad Air the precursor to an 'iPad Pro'?

A peculiar naming choice for Apple's new tablet hints that the company could expand to a larger, higher-end version in the future.

Apple's new iPad, the iPad Air.
Apple's new iPad, the iPad Air. James Martin/CNET

Just before introducing a brand-new model of the iPad on Tuesday, Apple made it a point to show off the many things people can do with iPads. From work to play to athletic training to taking a nap on the side of a mountain, the company's tablet can help just about anyone do just about anything, the company claimed.

But that's not how competitors see it. Microsoft in particular has taken the iPad to task since the introduction of its own Surface tablet, pointing to things like the Surface's optional keyboard-type covers and built-in Office software as things that set the Microsoft slate apart.

With its new tablets and free iWork and iLife software for all , Apple has addressed at least part of that criticism, and the curious naming convention leads me to believe the company's not done just yet.

Apple's new top-of-the-line tablet is called the iPad "Air" -- a carryover from Apple's MacBook line, and a tag that alludes to the thinner and lighter aspects of the new iPad versus last year's models. Along with a newer, faster model of the iPad Mini, with a Retina Display, and the aging-but-still-alive iPad 2, Apple now has a line in two different sizes, four different resolutions, and a price that can set a buyer back from $299 all the way up to $929.

The question is, could Apple follow with those same MacBook naming conventions and introduce -- perhaps as soon as next year -- an iPad "Pro"?

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There was just such a rumor two years ago, shortly before the launch of the third-generation iPad, suggesting that Apple was going to break out its Retina-display iPad models as something completely separate and higher-end for pros. That was partially true, but the then-new device simply became "the new iPad," while the iPad 2 lived on.

Based on the new iPad Air, there's very clearly room for Apple to expand what it is that's part of the tablet. That includes more storage and RAM, the latter of which Apple doesn't advertise, but that makes a marked difference on how iOS applications work. The more RAM you have, the more things can be open at once, and can be switched between without having to refresh data. And now, with 64-bit processors across all Apple's new iPads, that idea of more storage and RAM could one day become a reality.

But where Apple could stand out more immediately from its current line, and that of competitors, is by going bigger -- perhaps even into the 13-inch realm. It's already gotten there with the Retina displays on its MacBook Pro notebooks, which just became $200 cheaper as part of an update. Recent reports have also suggested that the company has explored just such a size for its tablets to go beyond the longstanding 9.7-inch panel.

Other things that were missing today, but that would be useful for a higher-end device include:

The real question is whether all these specs really push toward anything that's a little more than just a very fully loaded iPad, and into territory that enables new types of activities that weren't there before. In the meantime, Apple's current pitch is that the iPad Air and iPad Mini are whatever you want them to be.

"We designed iPad to be the best tool for the things you do most often," Apple CEO Tim Cook said on Tuesday. "But honestly we could have never imagined all the ways customers would be using them."

 

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