Apple Starts The Revolution With An iPad Evolution

Apple’s replacement for the iPad 2 raises the stakes in visualisation but that’s not a business driver, writes Eric Doyle

Revolutionary it wasn’t, but it was an impressive evolution and the launch of the new iPad brought the Apple Store to a grinding halt. Thousands, nay, millions of fanboys and fangirls all vied to see if they could be first to pre-order their tablet for 16 March delivery.

Like moths to a flame, the lucky ones who gained access could see the six options ranging from $499 (£317) for the 16GB WiFi to $829 (£527) for the 64GB with WiFi and 4G LTE tied to Verizon or AT&T networks. In the UK this translates to £399 basic up to £659 with connection to Vodafone, Orange, O2 and Three– with the same delivery date but no LTE option until the spectrum issues are sorted out.

As the stardust settles

Now the hullabaloo has died and the hardware facts are there to be examined, there is little to see that offers a massive advantage for business users. However, with prices being held down to match the old iPad 2 prices, the new iPad (3rd Generation) gives a much better processor for the same price so that’s a business win – given that many organisations seemed happy with the iPad 2.

In fact, the iPad 2 is now discounted to £329 (£429 with 3G) and that may have raised a cheer in many a requisitioning department – but the £70 savings are only available on 16GB models and the higher capacity versions seem to have disappeared. This could be a deal breaker for some meaty business applications but perhaps will make it an ideal mobile thin client for cloud apps.

The principle feature of the iPad is its high resolution screen. At 2048×1536 pixels resolution , it is better than a 1920×1080 HD display but 128 more pixels in the long side is barely noticeable. The marginally more meaningful 456 pixels on the shorter edge allows for the different aspect ratio of the tablet screen which will not be used when displaying a high definition movie but does give a better aspect for photo images. After all at worst we are talking about a 3.1 megapixel display versus a 2.1 megapixel display.

At a normal viewing distance, around 380mm (15 inches), Apple claims the screen looks pixel free – more like a photograph than a LCD screen. The fact it fools the eye is the root of the official name: Retina Display. For presentation purposes to small groups of people, this offers a deluxe, impressive canvas. For other business applications it is just eye-candy.

According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, the A5X system-on-a-chip (SoC) processor has four times the graphic processing power of the NvidiaTegra 3. Without any benchmarks to judge whether the Apple chip does blow the SoCs off the Android systems’ darling, the question is what the actually processing power will be. The A5X is basically a dual core processor (like the iPad 2’s A5) with four added cores for graphics processing. How this compares with the nVidia for business applications is anybody’s guess at the moment – but nVidia is itching to run its own benchtests.

Talking tablets

In the on-board apps world, like Siri on the iPhone 4S, Dictation on the iPad is starting to attract media interest. I think that reality will repeat the Siri experience: there will be many disappointed users. In the words of Star Trek’s engineer Scotty: “The engines cannae take it, Captain.”

Siri has yet to be localised for location-based services around the world, including the UK. This will be corrected over time but harmonising it to the varying English accents, even within Britain, seems a long way off.

Presumably, Apple is promoting the integrated speech feature in iOS 5 in the absence of Siri. The voice-to-text app is believed to be based on Nuance’s Naturally Speaking and, by adding a microphone button on the virtual keyboard, the iPad matches the iPhone layout. I have been a user of Naturally Speaking for quite a few years and it still doesn’t meet my needs as a professional typist.

The application is impressive but, paraphrasing Dr Samuel Johnson, it’s like a dog standing on its hind legs, it’s not that it does the job well but that it does it at all. Even Apple plays it down and suggests using Dictation for quick, short messages or for voice commands. Corrections for misunderstood words would be a nightmare for anything too ambitious.

Maybe when Cook’s team was planning his presentation it decided he needed something to cover the fact that Siri had not made it onto the iPad. This raises the question of whether the personal assistant app will reappear in the App Store for iPad or leave it for Evi, a third-party app, to gain the upper hand?

There is more than meets the eye to the graphics-based iPad but how far that will beat down the opposition remains to be seen. Apple has the advantage of its own market inertia which will guarantee sales – and holding down the price will enhance its iPad appeal.

Retina regicide

It is this enormous market presence that gives the iPad (3rd generation) the edge over any Android tablet that comes along to challenge it. The guaranteed large market means that Apple can knock down supplier prices – the way a supermarket chain beats down farmers and other suppliers. Other tablets do not have, and probably never will, have this advantage so it will be hard to fight against Apple’s weak spot – price.

The only hope for the competition is to garner sales over time and erode the iPad’s market leadership. This will weaken Apple’s bargaining position and make it harder for the company to harvest the best component deals. Until then, Apple will reign supreme.

Alternatively, the budget market for tablets may give the likes of Amazon an equivalently large sales volume to allow the company to build up the same bargaining muscle. After all, feature phone sales far outstrip the smartphone market, even in the glitzy, relatively more wealthy US market. The Amazon Kindle Fire has done well in the US and when the Apple frenzy dies down we expect to see an announcement from Amazon in Europe and the battle royal will begin.

Resolution may be king today but revolution has toppled many a throne.

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