Apple March 27 Chicago event: New iPads and more we hope to see

Commentary: We could see new iPads, coding initiatives -- and maybe a few surprises.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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Scott Stein
4 min read

Expect new iPads to be the centerpiece of Apple's big education event this year. That was my guess in the hours after Apple announced its March 27 press conference more than a week ago, and all the news since then continues to point in that direction.

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But let's back up a bit. Apple's surprise announcement that it's holding a spring event is notable because of its focus on education -- "Join us to hear creative new ideas for teachers and students," the invitation said, under the "Let's take a field trip" headline -- and its location: The event will play out at the Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago. (There won't be a live video stream, but you can follow CNET's live blog and live video simulcast starting 30 minutes before the event kicks off at 8 a.m. PT/11 a.m. ET.) 

The last purely education-focused Apple event was in January 2012 in New York City. It was the launch of digital textbooks, and wasn't about hardware at all. In the six years since, Google has gobbled up a huge swath of the US education market with its Chromebook and Google Classroom platforms. Apple is looking to turn the tide.


Chicago, anyone?


That said, just because the focus will be on schools and education doesn't mean Apple can't slip a few other announcements into its Chicago presentation. Moreover, anything that doesn't hit on March 27 could be kept on deck for the company's Worldwide Developers Conference ( WWDC ), which is just over two months away (June 4 in San Jose).

With that in mind, here's our best guess as to what Apple could unveil in Chicago on Tuesday.

Editors' note: This story was originally posted March 16 at 11:03 a.m. PT, soon after the Chicago event was announced. It has been updated with subsequent news, and a new prediction regarding AR.


Could Pencil make its way onto lower-cost iPads?

Sarah Tew/CNET

New iPads: Apple is supposedly working on updated iPad Pro models that borrow the Face ID technology found on the iPhone X . But we wouldn't expect those to hit until later in the year, if they arrive in 2018 at all. Instead, a refresh of the entry-level 9.7-inch iPad, released almost exactly a year ago, is far more likely. It's not fancy, but it's by far the best iPad value, and a perfect candidate for the education market. A processor refresh, at the very least, is due, and new cameras wouldn't hurt, either. (Bloomberg's Mark Gurman says a new entry-level iPad is, in fact, on deck; and here's how Apple could keep the price down.) 

Pencil , perhaps? The Apple Pencil is a great tool, but it's limited to expensive iPad Pros. I'm going out on a limb and guessing that Apple finds a way to include Pencil support in lower-cost iPads, to support art and other graphics-based work on iPads in schools. Maybe that would mean a redesigned, more school-friendly Pencil, too, that doesn't have an easy-to-lose end cap, is easier to hold in smaller hands and doesn't roll off tables. (An eraser function would also be nice). Consider the invite graphic (at the top of this story): lots of flowing pencil-like lines -- that's probably no accident. Indeed, MacRumors quotes KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo as saying, "The new low-price 9.7-inch iPad ... will likely support Apple Pencil." 


Apple's Swift Playgrounds app already supports robotics.

James Martin/CNET

Coding initiatives: Apple's been intent to spread Swift to kids, via the iPad Swift Playgrounds app and through other efforts. Last December, Apple expanded its Everyone Can Code program to Chicago schools to teach Swift, which could be part of what Apple revisits at this event. Maybe it's a new app, or coding toolset, but look for something that brings tech-focused learning to the precollege set.

Wild card: New keyboard? If Apple is really going all-in on iPads as the new computer, then something needs to be done to help the lower-cost iPad hit that goal. There are plenty of great Bluetooth keyboards, but Apple hasn't made its own keyboard accessory. Its smart keyboard cover only works with iPad Pros via the Smart Connector. Maybe lower-cost iPads could also get the smart connector... or maybe not.

AR surprises: Apple is already a major player in augmented reality, and that could end up appearing in educational efforts. Google's AR Expeditions initiative has already used phones with selfie sticks to explore solar systems in classrooms. Apple could be doing the same with iPhones and iPads, especially since ARKit is due to be updated with more functions.

Education pricing plans: Apple already offers discounts for educators, but ramping up the deals here -- on iPads, Macs, software and services -- would help the company regain strength in the education market, which -- as noted above -- has been tilting toward Google's Chromebook platform in a big way over the past few years.

What not to expect in Chicago

In addition to iPad Pros, I also think it's a bit too early for Apple to be showing off new MacBooks . That includes a rumored MacBook Air revamp which is said to be in the works. In the same piece cited above, sources for Bloomberg's Gurman agree, stating that a new laptop "probably won't be ready in time for next week." 

Personally, I also wouldn't expect these other Apple products, both real and expected: the AirPower charge pad announced last September that still hasn't been released, and the rumored iPhone SE 2. This Apple event is explicitly about education, so expect a tighter focus than the norm.

Or not! Remember that, aside from the reports cited from third parties, these are all guesses on my part. We'll know for sure once the event kicks off in Chicago at 10 a.m. CT (11 a.m. ET, 8 a.m. PT) on Tuesday, March 27. CNET will be there, covering it live.

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