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Report: 10.5-inch iPad Pro could precede 'radical' design changes in 2018

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Apple’s existing crop of iPad Pro models, a 12.9-inch slab and newer, smaller 9.7-inch alternative, represent two extremes on the tablet size spectrum. There’s no in-between — those yearning for a 10.1-inch answer to Samsung’s 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab 4, for instance, or even Microsoft’s 12.3-inch Surface, have so far had to settle for a tablet awkwardly large for day-to-day use, or one a tad lacking in screen real estate. But the wait for greater selection may not stretch on much longer: Ming-Chi Kuo, an industry analyst with a proven track record when it comes to Apple rumors, has issued a new report detailing Apple’s iPad plans through 2018. First up? A total of three iPad models in sizes from 9.7 inches to 12.9 inches, due out as soon as 2017.

According to Kuo, a 10.5-inch iPad Pro will be the newest slate to grace Apple’s lineup next year. It’ll join refreshes of the Cupertino, California-based company’s 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch iPads, the latter of which Apple will reposition as a “low-cost” entry. That’s in lieu of  a fourth, 7.9-inch budget iPad with weaker hardware and fewer features the company intended as a replacement for the aging iPad mini 4, but that launch plan was reportedly scrapped — presumably because sales of Apple’s smaller iPads have been largely cannibalized by the 5.5-inch iPhone Plus.

Related: Apple and IBM target corporate sector with 8 new enterprise apps

In terms of internals, Kuo expects the new iPads to pack a processing punch. The top-end models — specifically, the new 12.9-inch and 10.5-inch iPad Pro — will likely sport Apple’s rumbled-about 10nm, A10X processor, while the 9.7 model could inherit the current-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s A9X. Apple’s longtime fabrication partner TSMC is expected to supply the tech.

If that news weren’t exciting enough, Kuo’s predicting more significant changes to come in the years ahead. As soon as 2018, Apple plans to introduce “revolutionary” and “radical” changes to the iPad line: a “[new] form factor design” and flexible AMOLED display.

Shipments of iPads during Apple’s third quarter of 2016 (the period between April and June) were rosier than analysts expected. In what Tim Cook described as the company’s “best iPad compare in 10 quarters,” Apple sold 10 million tablets — about 3 percent less year on year — and generated $4.9 billion, a 7.4 climb from the previous quarter. Kuo doesn’t expect sales the rest of this year to leapfrog those results — he predicts shipments to from 45 million to 50 million to 35 million to 40 million. And next year, Kuo projects a reversal — an overall decline of 10 to 20 percent year over year.

Related: As tablet sales tank, Apple finds iPad success from an unlikely source

That downswing will likely mirror the broader tablet market. Market firm IDC pegged tablet shipments in 2016 at 206.8 million, or a decrease of 10.1 percent from two years ago, thanks largely to market share gains by “detachable” and tablets like Microsoft’s Surface and Surface Pro. Apple has stemmed the fall in part with iPad accessories that deliver equivalent functionality, like the snap-on Smart Keyboard and Pencil stylus. And it has narrowed much of its development muscle to niche markets like enterprise. In 2015, Apple inked an agreement with IBM to build an exclusive library of corporate apps, and more recently announced a joint working agreement with networking giant Cisco. As many as half of Apple’s iPad sales are from businesses and government entities, according to The New York Times.

But, the thinking goes, eye-catching technologies have the potential to rekindle consumer sales. Bendable screen tech isn’t out of the question — Samsung employs curved screens on several of its flagship smartphones, and LG demoed a flexible, transparent, double-sided OLED screen at the IFA conference in Germany last year. Rumor has it that Apple is planning similar tech for a future iPhone similar tech in a future iPhone.