Apple spruced up its product line at an event Tuesday while slipping in quiet notice of a long-awaited software update, now due next week, designed to enhance the privacy of iPhone users at the expense of digital platforms such as Facebook that rely on data tracking for ad sales.
Timing for the software upgrade trickled out during a series of announcements for new iPads, iMac computers and more during a pre-recorded event that sometimes seemed like a one-hour infomercial for Apple.
As analysts expected, the launch focused on new iPads, specifically a new 12.9-inch iPad Pro which features the same Apple-designed M1 processor used in the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and Mac mini models.
The M1 chip makes the iPad Pro by far the fastest in the iPad line, 50% faster than last year's iPad Pro which features the A12Z Bionic chip, also designed by Apple. Other features include a 5G wireless capability, Liquid Retina XDR and advanced mini-LED design. According to Apple, the new Liquid Retina XDR display and other technology refreshes can also be found in the new 11-inch iPad Pro.
"Taking a step back, in this WFH environment Apple has seen a major renaissance of growth from its iPad growth showing 40%+ YoY growth the last few quarters as more employees/students went through an iPad refresh," said Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives in a research note.
Ives predicts huge sales for Apple from the work-from-home crowd that has grown exponentially since the start of COVID-19, and are sorely in need of upgrades of their old devices.
"We estimate less than half of iPad users globally have gone through a refresh the last year with some clear pent-up demand that these new iPads will unleash in the next few quarters thus giving Apple another product tailwind," Ives said.
AirTag with iOS 14.5
The company also showed off something called the AirTag, a coin-sized tracking device you can add to stuff you don't want to lose — your tortoise, your phone, your coffee cup or perhaps small children. Items carrying the AirTag can be securely located and tracked by iPhone users using the Find My app.
The AirTag, due in stores April 30, will require the iPhone software update called. That update will also include a new feature requiring apps to obtain explicit permission from users before tracking their activity and whereabouts. Apple said in a footnote to its AirTags announcement that the update will be released at some point next week.
Apple had previously only said that the update would be available in the spring. A similar software update is coming out for iPads as well.
The new privacy tool could drain billions of dollars of revenue from apps such as Facebook, which rely on tracking people on iPhones to collect personal information that helps them sell targeted ads.
The privacy feature, called App Tracking Transparency, will require apps running on Apple's iOS 14.5 platform to request permission from iPhone users before gathering their user or device data. To date, such apps have been free to track iPhone users automatically unless people take the time and trouble to prevent the snooping.
Apple originally planned to released the anti-tracking feature last September, but delayed it to give apps that ad-dependent "free" apps to adjust to the changes. Facebook spent part of the delay blasting Apple for a change that it says could make it difficult for smaller apps to survive without charging consumers. At the same time, Facebook has acknowledged to investors that its own ad revenue could also be hurt.
On the product front, Apple is rolling out new iMacs with better cameras and speakers for improved video meetings and sound and new iMac keyboards with the same fingerprint ID sensor that unlocks iPhones and iPads.
Apple's new paid podcast option will join an increasingly crowded field of digital antertainment and information subscription services. Those already include several from Apple, including music and video streaming options that feed off the nearly 1.6 billion devices currently in use by the company's mostly affluent customers.
The popularity of those products and services have turned Apple into one of the world's most profitable companies with a market value of $2.2 trillion, twice where it stood when the pandemic began.