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Keyboard in iOS 9 points to larger Apple tablet, developer says

An app developer shows an image that suggests the iPad keyboard could scale to larger screen sizes. Is this a hint that the much-rumored iPad Pro is on its way?

ipad-keyboard-ios9.jpg
The screenshot shows the iPad keyboard with a new top row of symbols as well as tab and caps lock keys on the left side.Steve Troughton-Smith

Rumors of an Apple tablet with a larger screen have been swirling for well over a year, but a hint in iOS 9 suggests that could be changing.

App developer Steve Troughton-Smith said he found a feature built into the virtual keyboard in iOS 9, the newest version of Apple's mobile operating system, that adds new keys and allows it to scale with larger screen sizes. In a screenshot Troughton-Smith posted to Twitter on Monday, the iPad keyboard is shown with a new top row of symbols -- the ones typically found on hardware keyboards above the number keys -- as well as tab and caps lock keys on the left side of the keyboard. The keys also appear more spread out.

Apple announced iOS 9 at its Worldwide Developers Conference last week. The operating system will run on most Apple devices, including older devices like the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S, and be available as a free upgrade from the company's current mobile platform, iOS 8. Apple made iOS 9 available to developers at its conference, which is how Troughton-Smith got his hands on the platform and found keyboard feature.

The find lends some credence to speculation that Apple plans to launch a larger tablet, rumored to be called the iPad Pro or iPad Plus. The slate will reportedly feature a 12.9-inch screen and come with enhanced specs. It would be designed for customers who would want a tablet to replace their existing notebooks.

Apple currently sells two iPad versions: the iPad Air and iPad Mini. The iPad Air comes with a 9.7-inch screen, while the iPad Mini features a 7.9-inch display. Apple's current models, the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3, start at $499 and $399, respectively. Prices vary, depending on the amount of storage a customer wants and whether they desire a connection a wireless carrier's network.

Variety in Apple's product lineup has done little to help its tablet sales. In April, Apple announced that for the fifth quarter in a row, its iPad revenue and unit sales were down. During its fiscal second quarter, which ended March 28, Apple sold 12.6 million iPads worldwide and generated $5.4 billion in revenue, a 23 percent and 29 percent decline year over year, respectively.

The troubled division helped to create a stagnant tablet market. In March, research firm IDC revised its 2015 worldwide tablet sales forecast down to 234.5 million units, representing a paltry 2.1 percent gain over the number of slates shipped in 2014. IDC previously believed the market would grow by 5.2 percent.

Jean Philippe, IDC's tablet research director, said the market is experiencing "a slowdown."

IDC's research noted that 2-in-1 devices, or tablet-laptop hybrids, will account for the majority of the growth in tablet shipments this year. Apple, which doesn't sell a 2-in-1, will see its market share fall from 28 percent in 2014 to 26 percent in 2015, IDC predicts. However, Apple will still be the world's biggest tablet maker.

Whether an iPad Pro is in Apple's plans is unknown. The notoriously secretive company has launched new versions of its current iPad models each of the last several years, and is rumored to be planning upgrades to the iPad Mini and iPad Air in 2015. New versions tend to boost sales for a period of time. Adding another iPad Pro to the mix could help Apple's tablet business even more.

Still, Apple appears to be in no rush to launch a bigger version. Rumors have been swirling for over a year that Apple is planning to launch a high-powered iPad Pro with a bigger screen. Some had suggested that Apple would announce the iPad Pro in 2014, but the company didn't. Last month, a few rumors cropped up, saying that the iPad Pro would be announced as last week's Worldwide Developers Conference. Again, Apple left those hopeful for a launch dissatisfied. Now, rumors suggest a fall launch is possible.

As always, Apple isn't talking. The company did not respond to a request for comment.