Apple has taken some justifiable criticism as of late that each new device release is more of a refinement than a “magical and revolutionary” device. In the iPad line, the tablet has largely maintained its form factor, and each subsequent release adds some processing horsepower or screen resolution, making for more of a feature bump than major update. Even the long-anticipated iPad Mini was anticlimactic, delivering the long-expected smaller iPad but largely maintaining the same styling and features and forgoing the obvious addition of a high-resolution screen for a refresh down the road. If Apple were to embark on a major revision of the iPad, what might it look like?

X’s and I’s unite

One frequent area of speculation is that Apple would unify its desktop OS X and handheld iOS operating systems. Recent rumors even suggest Apple abandoning Intel processors in its desktops and laptops and adopting an ARM-based processor across all its devices. For those unfamiliar with the nuances of the platforms, ARM was designed from the ground up for low-power devices, making it ideal for smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Conversely, Intel’s processors were originally designed for desktop usage, where power consumption was not even a consideration in the initial iterations of the processor.

While it might sound far-fetched to run a mobile processor and operating system on a desktop, Apple’s initial Macintosh computers grew up on a similar processor architecture in the guise of Motorola and PowerPC chips, and the success of the MacBook Air and Windows-based ultrabooks shows a strong demand for longevity and portability.

Moving its desktops to ARM and a lighter-weight OS could push laptop runtimes into the dozens of hours, while maintaining the horsepower to run most common applications. It would also blur the lines among tablet, laptop, and desktop in a way that Microsoft is driving toward with Windows RT but far more rapidly since legacy support has rarely concerned Apple. If your desktop, laptop, and tablet lines all run the same OS, dropping your next iPad into a docking station and working with keyboard, mouse, and touch, then grabbing the device and using it as a traditional tablet seems like an obvious and compelling feature. This also delivers an obvious end run around Microsoft, who is still struggling to articulate its computing vision and has millions of users (and recurring revenue) tied to legacy applications and support.

Pushing hardware forward

With battery life being the primary design consideration for most tablets, we’re not likely to see any major form factor changes in the devices themselves. However, I believe Apple has a trick up its sleeve with the new Lightning interface. Most of the noise around the Lightning interface has been about the challenges of purchasing new cables and adapters, but this interface is way more than charging. Lightning offers a high-speed digital interface, which makes a variety of Apple-branded ancillary hardware possible. With the combination of Apple’s desktop and mobile OSs, a one-cable docking station or television interface puts significantly more capability into a device, while pushing piles of $40 adapters for everything from televisions to cameras.

With the success of pen-driven Android devices, we might also see a future iPad with pen input capability.  We can now touch and talk to our devices; being able to take notes and draw easily and naturally would further ingrain an Apple device into one’s daily work and personal life.

I’m not privy to any insider information, but the increasingly organized competition in the tablet space seems to finally be affecting Apple. The iPad Mini is itself an acknowledgement that Apple needs to aim for a lower price point, and pricing pressure will only increase if the best Apple can do on each subsequent release is offer more processing power and a new way to charge the battery.