I've seen the future…and it is filled with iPads. In two sizes. Original and mini.
With today's iPad announcements, Apple has laid down the gauntlet in the tablet wars. In my view, barring a few small but significant exceptions (and I'll get to them in a moment), there is no reason for anyone to buy a tablet that is not an iPad. I expect Apple to to crush the competition this holiday season.
I had suspected that Apple would update the 10-inch iPad today by adding a Lightning connector. But I figured that would be it. While the new fourth generation iPad does include the Lightning adapter, it surprisingly offers even more. It ups the ante with an A6X chip that promises to be "up to twice as fast" as the chip on the older (no longer new) iPad. As a bonus, the new iPad offers an improved front-facing FaceTime HD camera and faster Wi-Fi performance.
The iPad mini, of course, features a smaller size and 7.9-inch display (which is not a Retina display). It sports an A5 processor but otherwise has specs almost identical to its larger sibling.
There is nothing about these two new iPads that is groundbreaking. In fact, as best as I can figure, there is not one thing you can do with the newer iPads that you couldn't do with the older model (except easily hold the iPad mini in one hand).
Nonetheless, I believe today's announcements represent a potentially game-changing event for Apple.
First, Apple has shown that it's willing to update iPad models on a 6 month cycle, rather than the yearly upgrades we have been seeing. This allows Apple to respond more effectively to the rapid pace of technological improvements and arrival of new competition. Having new iPads just before the holiday season will spur sales on by itself, but should additionally stave off a reluctance to buy an iPad because you want to wait for a new one with a Lightning connector next year. There isn't another tablet on the market as elegantly designed or with as many useful apps as the iPad. I see no reason that the 10-inch iPad will not continue to dominate the competition in its size category. [Note: I have not included Microsoft Surface tablets in my considerations here, as it is too early for me to assess their effect.]
With the smaller iPad mini, Apple plants a flag firmly in the middle of this market. As Phil Schiller ably demonstrated at the media event, the iPad mini is overwhelmingly superior to its Android competitors. I was especially impressed with the comparison that showed how an iPad mini was a bit smaller overall than an Android tablet despite the fact that the Android had a smaller (7-inch) display.
I was also glad to see (as I had predicted) that the mini will run all existing iPad software — and look good doing it. Speaking of predictions, I missed the mark when I said there would be no rear-facing camera — but pretty much nailed everything else. While there were no new book reading features specific to the iPad mini, Apple did announce a new version of iBooks — featuring continuous scrolling of text — for all iOS devices.
Based on a tech specs comparison, a hardware design comparison, and a software comparison — nothing compares to the iPads. And now, whether you want a big one or a small one, you have a choice.
As I see it, there are only three reasons why anyone interested in a tablet would not get an iPad at this point:
• You want an bare-bones e-ink reader. In that case, you want something like the $120 Kindle Paperwhite. Of course, many people (myself included) have both a Kindle and an iPad. So this needn't be an either-or decision.
• You don't like the Apple eco-system and don't want any product made by Apple. Period. There's nothing I can say here. Expecting this to change would be like expecting a member of the Tea Party to support Obama.
• Price. This is the big one. The iPad mini starts at $329 for 16GB. The Google Nexus 7 tablet, with a 7-inch screen and 16 GB storage, sells for $250. Other competing tablets sell for less than $200. For those whom price is a prominent concern (and this is a sizable group of customers), the price difference could be a deciding factor in favor of Android. This, more than anything else, will allow the competition to stay in the game.
Fortunately for Apple, price is something that can be easily adjusted. You don't need to ship new units from China to do it. I'm sure Apple is on top of this. If they come to believe that it would be to their financial advantage to lower prices, they will. For now, it's wait and see.
Speaking of price, the entry level iPad mini is just $30 more than a new 32GB iPod touch. I believe this is enough of a separation to sustain the iPod touch as a viable alternative, especially for those who prefer a pocket-size iOS device. Again, we'll have to wait and see how it shakes out.
Bottom line: In terms of market competition, Apple enters the critical holiday season with the best line-up of iOS products I have ever seen. I will be shocked if the financial results for the next quarter are anything other than spectacular.
A few words about Apple's other announcements
The new iPads were the highlights of today's announcements. But there were also new iMacs, new Mac minis, and a new 13" MacBook Pro on the menu. From all that was announced, here's what stood out the most for me:
• The iMac no longer comes with an internal optical drive. This means that the optical drive is missing from the iMac, the Mac mini, the MacBook Air, and the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The message could not be clearer: As far as Apple is concerned, optical media are dead.
• The Fusion drive looks to be the drive of the future. Apple has taken an SSD and a traditional hard drive and combined them into one unit. Going a step beyond, via software, the Mac can shuttle apps back and forth between the two types of drives, making sure that your most frequently used apps are always on the SSD. It's currently available for the iMac and Mac mini. If it performs as good as it sounds, I expect this will be the default choice on all desktop Macs — and an option on MacBook Pros — within a year or two.
• The new iMac is incredibly thin (although it does get thicker as you move towards its middle). At some point, Apple's products won't be able to get any thinner. I wonder if I'll live to see that point.
• iTunes 11 is not yet here. But Apple is still promising its release before the end of October.