As Apple(s aapl) gets ready to introduce the third version of the fastest-growing product in its history, it almost doesn’t matter what it unveils: the number of people interested in the new type of computing experience provided by the tablet is exploding and they can’t find everything they’re looking for from any other company.
It’s pretty much all over but the show. At some point Wednesday morning Apple is going to introduce what the finest gadget speculators in the land expect will be the iPad HD: more or less similar to the iPad 2 but with a higher-resolution display, an LTE network connection and probably a few bells and whistles that haven’t yet leaked. We’re also expecting a new version of Apple TV (see Ryan Lawler’s thoughts on that product).
The higher-resolution display will likely be the most important development in this early chapter of the iPad story. Consumers will notice the shiny new screen, but app developers and content publishers will find opportunities and challenges in making sure their content looks good on the device. LTE support is interesting for several reasons (Kevin Fitchard explains why here), but an awful lot of iPad owners seem content with the Wi-Fi-only version.
Nearly two years since Apple first introduced the iPad, it’s clear that a shift in what consumers want in a personal computer has accelerated. Apple had sold 55 million iPads in total as of the end of 2011, Apple CEO Tim Cook said on the company’s last earnings call. And despite months of certainty about a springtime iPad 3/HD launch, you can probably tack on another 8-10 million iPad 2s sold during the first quarter of 2012.
The timing is right. After making compromises between smartphones that were too small and laptops that were too heavy, people were finally ready for something different and responded in droves over the course of 2011. PC sales are now headed in the other direction.
Yet no one else has managed to capitalize on this opportunity. Android tablet sales remain pitifully low, and despite the fall 2011 launch of a new operating system version that was supposed to unify the smartphone and tablet versions of Android, Google’s partners seem tentative about tablets. Research in Motion’s Playbook is an industry-wide joke, having just discovered the ability to send e-mail one year after its debut. And while Windows 8 tablets are promising, they won’t arrive for several months and will be a first-generation product with all of the potential pitfalls inherent in that status.
I still believe someday that will change: the stakes are too high and too many in this industry remember quite well the historical lessons of letting one company dominate a computer market. My colleague Kevin Tofel will talk your ear off about how some Android makers have actually figured out how to make nice devices but lack the total package that Apple can put forth.
But even after giving an industry two years of product research and design insights, the tablet market is still Apple’s playground. At some point Apple may have to deal with the threat posed by low-cost e-reader/tablet devices, such as the Kindle Fire and the Nook. But no one buys one of those devices thinking it will have the capabilities of an iPad, because it’s clear from about 30 seconds of playing around with one in a store that something like the Kindle Fire is in a different category.
Unless Apple has some crazy “New Coke” inspired take on the iPad that makes jaws drop in the bad way Wednesday morning, the iPad HD really doesn’t matter. Sure, the gadgeteers will salivate over every last detail with breathless live blogs (make sure to read ours, of course), instant judgments on whether it’s the best thing ever or a massive failure (see Mat Honan’s latest in an ongoing send-up of gadget-fetish journalism), and speculation about whether Apple’s miraculous run will continue.
Faced with no real competition (if this is the best one can do to come up with a list of competitors, that says it all), all Apple needs to do with the next iPad is avoid giving its current and former customers a reason to seek out competition. Even if the next iPad is nothing more than a snazzier and faster version of the iPad 2, that’s still good enough to be the best thing on the market. And if it’s something truly inspired, Apple will have proven again that it is years ahead of the rest of the world.
It will be impossible to attend Wednesday’s event without thinking back to a year ago, when Steve Jobs made one of his final public appearances on behalf of Apple to unveil the iPad 2. During that presentation, Jobs joked about how so many industry insiders believed 2011 would be “the year of the tablet” when in his mind, it was still the iPad’s world.
That observation is still true in 2012, and that’s a getting to be a problem for anyone who was brought up to “think different” and not accept the status quo. Apple deserves all the credit for defining a new era of personal computing, but at some point, the decisions Apple makes when designing a new version of the iPad need to once again matter.