Apple likes to be unpredictable. In 2011, when the world was expecting a redesigned iPhone 5, they gave us the iPhone 4S. In March, when we all thought we'd see the iPad 3, we got "the new iPad." Then – at the event dedicated to the iPad mini – Apple surprised by revealing a 4th-generation iPad. The iPad 4 announcement raises one big question: is this the next big update for the iPad, or will we see a more significant upgrade in March?
Why October makes sense
Though it required breaking tradition, the 4th-gen iPad reveal makes sense. Competition is getting fierce, with Amazon releasing a whole family of Kindle Fires, Google doing well with the Nexus 7, and Microsoft going all in with Surface. Apple can't afford to stand still.
The tablet market is the most pivotal arena in tech. Both desktop and smartphone operating systems are converging there. Everyone wants a piece of this pie, and Apple is determined to hold onto the dominant position.
Updating the iPad to the 4th generation makes the tablet look better next to its rivals. It also capitalizes on the holiday shopping season, which in many ways makes more sense than March for releasing a new product.
It's tempting to say that we won't see another iPad until next (Northern Hemisphere) autumn, but the same motives that led Apple to release an iPad in October may also dictate that they'll release another one soon.
The 4th-gen iPad with Retina Display is a minor update. Its physical design – including its display – is identical to that of the 3rd-gen iPad. The device gets a shot of adrenaline from the new A6X chip, but that's the only significant upgrade.
Would Apple leave this model on the market until next October? During that time, Microsoft will aggressively market Surface (both the RT and Pro versions), Google may release a Nexus 10, and Amazon could finally launch a full-sized Kindle Fire. By October of 2013, the 4th-gen iPad could be way past its prime.
The increasingly cutthroat competition of the tablet market should guarantee an iPad 5 in March.
Killer updates on the horizon
There are two big updates coming for the iPad, and they can't wait for next October.
The first is a physical redesign. The 3rd- and 4th-gen iPads are thicker than the iPad 2. In the world of mobile tech, that's unheard of. This stemmed from the larger battery that powers the Retina Display, but technology advances will soon cancel that out. When Apple can afford to pack that 2048 x 1536 screen into a slimmer, slicker package, you can bet that it will.
Speaking of the display, Apple could use the same in-cell display technology from the iPhone 5 and iPod touch 5G in the next iPad. In-cell tech eliminates a layer from the display, letting the pixels reside closer to the surface. Sharp's power-efficient IGZO display has been rumored for the iPad for some time (it reportedly just missed the deadline for the iPad 3), so it could also show up.
If Apple could make these modifications by March – for the same price points – why wouldn't it?
There's another simple reason that Apple will probably renew the iPad in March. Spacing its events out better utilizes the buzz factor. If everything is released in September and October, it would be too easy for Apple news to fade into the background from January through August.
Rather than seeing a new iPad release cycle, I think we're seeing an addition to the iPad release cycle. In past years, Apple often updated its MacBooks twice a year; it may be time for that to happen to the iPad. Perhaps the new pattern will be a major update in the (Northern Hemisphere) spring, followed by an incremental performance boost in the autumn.
If you had to bet, the smart money would be on a new iPad in March. There are too many reasons to do it, and not enough reasons not to do it. But as much as Apple likes to surprise, don't bet the house on it.