Why the iPad 2 Wins The Tablet War

The iPad 2 is off to a great start. It hasn’t even shipped yet and it’s getting rave reviews — applauded as “phenomenal” and clearly outpacing the competition. Yours truly just declared the iPad 2 a “winner.”

Yet, as always, there have been voices from the other side of the fence. A common theme among critics is that the iPad 2 does not sport enough new features — that it is too much of an “incremental” upgrade. It needed to do better to compete with other tablets. A CNET News column took the the iPad 2 to task for its lack of a Retina Display, SD card slot, Near Field Communications technology, and more. TMO’s John Martellero, while recognizing the ultimate success of the iPad 2, concluded that its specs were a “disappointment.” Even my own prior column noted that “I expected more…By themselves, features such as slightly thinner and lighter don’t make a compelling case for why you should trade-in your old iPad for a new one.”

How does one respond to such criticisms?

The easy glib answer is: “For some people, it’s never enough. If Apple added 10 more features to the iPad 2, some blogger would still complain that you can’t use it to toast frozen waffles. Give it a rest. Have you noticed how many iPads Apple is selling? It’s not like they’re in trouble. The iPad 2 is a fine upgrade. It’s more than good enough.”

A different, more thoughtful, reply would point out that the success of the iPad 2 depends on more than the sum of its specs. It’s the overall experience of the iPad — hardware and software — that matters. At this level, the iPad 2 already has a commanding lead — and is poised to maintain it. John Gruber and Joshua Topolsky both offered riffs on this “post-PC” viewpoint. 

And yet…is there anything of interest to be gleaned by a closer look at the “incremental iPad 2” criticism? Assuming that Apple actually considered some of the hoped-for features, why might they have ultimately been given the axe?

After posting my prior article, I reflected on this question. I believe the answer a simple one. It all comes down to price. As Steve Jobs gleefully pointed out at Wednesday’s iPad 2 unveiling, with a base price of $499, five out six of the iPad 2 models are cheaper than the $799 base price for a Motorola Xoom. Currently, competitors simply can’t compete on price. Samsung executives are already scratching their heads, worried about the relatively high price of their Galaxy tab — as well as expressing concern about matching the iPad 2’s thinner body.

It’s hard to overstate the value of a lower price in the marketplace. Too often, Apple has been on the losing end of this metric — trying to defend why its products are worth a premium. In the case of the Mac, this has been considered a major factor in its failure to gain market share years ago. Now Apple is selling the cheapest tablet in the land — without any sacrifice in Apple’s legendary quality and design. No wonder competitors are scrambling.

Let’s get back to those sought-after “missing” features. Sure, they would be great to have. But doing so would inevitably mean that Apple would need to spend more to make an iPad 2. Apple would either have to accept less of a profit margin or increase the price of the iPad. 

As it is, the iPad 2 is not a trivial upgrade. The cameras and extra speed of the A5 chip are a big deal. The competition continues to struggle to catch up. Why risk the huge advantage of the iPad’s low price to add features that likely won’t make a difference to the product’s success? It makes no sense. And that’s why those features are missing-in-action from the new iPad.

A time may come when Apple feels increased pressure to compete on features. If so (and that time may never come), I’m confident Apple will respond quickly without any danger of losing its momentum. Apple is pacing itself for the marathon they see ahead, not the 100 yard dash of the next six months.

Still, there remains a part of me that wonders what an iPad 2 might have looked like if Steve Jobs had taken inspiration from Al Capone in The Untouchables — and shouted to his staff: “I want you to get these crap tablets where they breathe! I want an iPad that will take on the Motorola Xoom and leave it DEAD! I want every other tablet that resembles a competitor DEAD! I want them so bankrupt that they have to burn their factories to the GROUND! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and I wanna PISS ON THEIR ASHES!”

That would have been an iPad 2 to see.

There’s another part of me that believes we’re in fact about to see that iPad 2. It goes on sale March 11. I’ll be getting one.