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Analysis

Apple's quiet iPad launch proves no one cares about tablets

The iPad franchise has gone from headlining marquee Apple events to showing up in a quiet announcement via press release.

You can write "wow!" on the iPad all you want. That's no guarantee of "pow!" in iPad sales.

Apple

Psst! Did you hear that Apple released a new iPad?

You'd be forgiven if you didn't. After all, Apple didn't bother to hold an event to introduce its newest 9.7-inch tablet, which drops the Air name and gets a $70 price cut along with a faster processor and brighter display. Instead, Apple made the announcement in a press release issued with little fanfare Tuesday morning.

"New customers and anyone looking to upgrade will love this new iPad for use at home, in school, and for work, with its gorgeous Retina display, our powerful A9 chip, and access to the more than 1.3 million apps designed specifically for it," Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said in a release.

We'll see if there are that many customers looking for a new iPad.

This marks the first time the company has unveiled an iPad in such a low-key manner. It underscores just how far tablets have fallen: Global shipments dropped for a ninth consecutive quarter in the last three months of 2016, according to product tracker IDC. Apple has fared even worse -- iPad sales have dropped for 12 straight quarters.

"The market essentially peaked in 2014," said IDC analyst Ryan Reith.

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Just look how far the iPad has fallen in the eyes of Apple. An iPad has played a part in at least one of Apple's "special events" each year.

The last time an iPad felt truly special -- where it warranted an event for itself -- was back in 2011 when Steve Jobs came back from medical leave to unveil the iPad 2. But the tablet market was still fresh, and even the minor upgrades (rear- and front-facing cameras, a faster processor) warranted excitement. Remember, this was before competitors flooded the market with cheaper me-too tablets.

Since then, the iPad has shared the spotlight with other Apple products, although notable versions like the iPad Air and the iPad Mini served as the headliner. That wasn't the case in 2015 with the original, supersized iPad Pro, which served as the opening act to the iPhone 6S, and the smaller 9.7-inch iPad Pro, which debuted with the budget-friendlier iPhone SE a year ago.

So now we come to the new iPad, which is simply called iPad. It's just one of several announcements Apple made via press release today, including a special-edition red iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, an iPhone SE with double the storage and a new video editing and sharing app called Clips.

It appears as if the iPad has been downgraded to the status of new Mac updates, which often get announced via press release, too. Still, Apple CEO Tim Cook said in January that he remains "very bullish" on iPads.

An Apple spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.

Resurgence of tablets? Uh, no.

After a long stretch of silence on the tablet front, consumer tech's two largest names -- Apple and Samsung -- have both introduced new products within two months of each other.

In late February, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Tab S3, a 9.7-inch tablet device running Google's Android software, and two larger variants of the Galaxy Book, a Surface Pro-like tablet running on Microsoft's Windows 10 software.

Samsung boasted of taking some of the elements of its popular phones -- the bright screen, fast-charging technology and the S-Pen -- and incorporating them into the new tablets.

"We're bringing the best of Galaxy to this area," said Hassan Anjum, senior manager of product marketing for Samsung's tablets.

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The Galaxy Tab S3 is one of two tablets Samsung unveiled ahead of the Mobile World Congress trade show last month.

Samsung

Does the flurry of new tablets mean something significant for the tablet business? Don't bet on it.

In Samsung's case, the company was looking to keep a little buzz alive with new products, but wasn't quite ready to go with its headliner act, the Galaxy S8 phone. It's telling that the buzz over Samsung's tablets, which were introduced ahead of the Mobile World Congress trade show a few weeks back, disappeared almost immediately thanks to excitement over the nostalgia-heavy Nokia 3310.

Likewise, it might not be a coincidence that Apple is letting its announcements trickle out a week before Samsung's big Galaxy S8 event.

Because while the iPad may have lost much of its steam since the heyday of tablets, a new Apple product still has the ability to turn some heads.

CNET's Shara Tibken contributed to this story.

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