iPad Pro to boost Apple iPad sales -- in the short term, at least

How big a lure are the Pro's big screen and other new features? One prominent analyst thinks the iPad market will mostly continue to be flat. Not everyone agrees.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
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Will the iPad Pro revive iPad sales? Analysts are divided. James Martin/CNET

Apple's new big-screen tablet may bump up iPad sales over the near future but it won't lead to an enduring revival, according to analyst Gene Munster.

Forecasts from other analysts paint a somewhat rosier outlook.

On Wednesday, Apple introduced its latest and largest iPad, dubbed the iPad Pro . Outfitted with a 12.9-inch screen, the Pro is well-suited to run Microsoft Office software and dedicated apps from Adobe, Apple said. Accessories like the new Apple Pencil and a smart keyboard could add to the tablet's appeal to consumers and businesses.

That would be a welcome turn for Apple. iPad sales and market share have been on the downturn for many months as more rival tablets have hit the market and as users hold onto their existing tablets or opt for big-screened phones as an alternative.

The question is, how long can Apple count on a boost from the iPad Pro?

Not over the long haul, according to Munster, of Wall Street firm Piper Jaffray. In an investors note released late Wednesday, the analyst said he sees just a short-term benefit for iPad sales and some longer-term gains in the average selling prices of iPads.

Munster had been projecting a 4 percent drop in iPad sales for 2016. And though the iPad Pro could help whittle that number down a bit, the analyst expects the iPad segment to remain flat over the next few years.

Apple iPad Pro made for tablet power users (pictures)

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The iPad Pro also may not hit the mark as a laptop replacement, said Munster. He sees Apple's MacBook as a superior device for productivity and one that's almost as portable as the Pro.

Other analysts are less pessimistic than Munster about the iPad Pro's prospects.

"We believe that the new iPad plus iOS 9 [software] features positions Apple well to take share in $500-$1,000 laptop category, which we estimated to be a $63 billion market opportunity," JP Morgan analyst Rod Hall said in an investors note out Thursday.

Looking at both the iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2, Hall predicts that Apple could sell as many as 19 million iPads (12 million of them the Pro models) to consumers looking at them as laptop replacements. If so, that could help Apple steal a 20 percent share from laptops priced between $500 and $1,000.

The iPad Pro starts at $799 for 32 gigabytes of storage and Wi-Fi only, and goes up to $1,079 for a 128GB model with 4G LTE cellular connectivity.

With its big new tablet, Apple is going "head to head with the full, notebook PC," said IHS analyst Lee Graham late Wednesday. Graham referred to the Pro as "fast and more agile" and sporting a higher screen resolution than most notebooks sold by Apple's rivals.

"By incorporating a Retina display, Apple provides clear product differentiation between the new iPad Pro and the current MacBook Air models," Graham said. "On front-of-screen performance, the iPad Pro will easily outperform the MacBook Airs, an important, in-your-face distinction for users as they grapple with the product choice. With a growing number of users turning to tablets and notebooks as their primary video viewing screen, display performance is key."

IHS expects iPad shipments to hit 50 million units this year, a 19 percent drop from last year. But with its higher price, the iPad Pro will help increase the average selling price for iPads and boost revenues.

Graham said he expects a rise in iPad sales in 2016 "as supply of the iPad Pro improves and a healthy segment of the 200 million installed iPad users line up for a product refresh."