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The iPad 1

iOS 6 dropped support for the first-generation iPad (“iPad 1”), which was sold from spring 2010 through spring 2011. In other words, everyone who bought an iPad at least 19 months ago has an iPad 1, and their unsubsidized, non-contract, $500+ tablet is going to grow much less useful over the next year as apps start to require iOS 6. This has naturally angered a lot of iPad 1 owners.

It’s frustrating to have such a large purchase become obsolete so quickly. And this is even fast by iOS standards — after all, iOS 6 runs (with many features disabled) on the iPhone 3GS, which was released 9 months before the iPad 1. Many of us have speculated that Apple crammed iOS 6 into the iPhone 3GS because they were still selling it until two weeks ago, while they haven’t sold the iPad 1 for 19 months. It’s a reasonable theory that’s probably partially responsible for iOS 6’s device support, but I think there’s more to the story.

The iPad 1, despite its many great qualities, had a noticeable shortcoming: it only had 256 MB of RAM. This was most apparent in Safari, which could rarely keep background pages in memory and needed to reload them frequently. Reviewers and owners noticed this from day one, and we wondered why Apple didn’t include more RAM.

But when the iPad 1 was released with iOS 3.2 in early 2010, iOS was very different and needed far less RAM. There was no iCloud. No Notification Center or Game Center. No Personal Hotspot, iTunes Match, AirPlay, iMessage, or over-the-air updates. No Newsstand background downloads. And, critically, no multitasking, so no need to keep Skype or Pandora running in the background while playing Fieldrunners or reading Instapaper in the foreground. With the exception of Safari page-reloading, the limited RAM was rarely noticeable.

The hardware market was very different, too. The iPad 1 was the first modern “tablet”, and as we saw (eventually) from its competitors, its $499 price point and excellent battery life were difficult to achieve in 2010 (and even in 2011). More RAM would have added to the component costs and decreased the battery life, potentially making it less appealing and jeopardizing its success, so Apple chose to keep it at only 256 MB.

Whether that was a good decision or not, it significantly shortened the iPad 1’s useful software life. There was enough headroom for iOS 4 (although not until 4.2), but it was noticeably slower. And iOS 5 does run on the iPad 1, but poorly — many iPad 1 owners have downgraded or stayed on iOS 4 because of iOS 5’s performance on their devices.

Apple was able to stuff iOS 6 into the same 256 MB RAM limit on the iPhone 3GS, but the 3GS’ screen is much smaller than the iPad’s. Apps on the 3GS therefore need much less RAM for screen images, textures, and buffers, so if iOS 6 barely fit into the 3GS, it’s extremely plausible that Apple just couldn’t make enough feature cuts to run it on the iPad 1 and leave enough free RAM for apps to run without crashing.

Knowing Apple, that sounds like a far more plausible explanation than the most popular theory I’ve heard: that Apple just wants to force iPad 1 owners to buy new iPads. That’s not Apple’s style — they typically convince people to upgrade by releasing compelling new product improvements — and the technical explanation for the lack of iOS 6 on the iPad 1 is far more plausible.

Regardless of the reason, this doesn’t leave a lot of good options for iPad 1 owners. It sucks, but it sucks because of a tradeoff Apple made in 2010, not because of greed today.

Assuming Apple releases a relatively inexpensive iPad with at least iPad 2-class components in the near future, the best solution for iPad 1 owners is probably to sell it soon and upgrade.