March 05, 2011

The iPad 2 Dilemma: Nice Upgrade But Without Risk

Apple is at its best when it takes giant leaps forward and risks its reputation on a new product or idea that could change the industry. Arguably its biggest successes in the last decade have been of this variety - from the original iPod and iPhone to the iTunes Music Store, the iPad and the MacBook Air, each of which is iconic, and unquestionably a success. At a time when competition is moving faster and more intelligently than ever before, we've all collectively come to expect the amazing from Apple from every announcement, and simple upgrades with anticipated features don't change the game. The iPad 2 delivered what we expected - faster processors, dual cameras, and a thinner body, great upgrades, but not really much of a stretch. Now we're in a waiting game again, about 9 months to a year from their next announcement (maybe), giving the competition a new target.

When the iPad was introduced in January of 2010, I said no other company could pull off what Apple had, adding "they are going to sell a ton of these machines, and you'll see them in places you never expected." Apple's sales numbers prove that to be true. They've sold excellently, and we've got a pair of them in our home (the original WiFi only version, purchased on day one). The company's focus on interesting markets, such as health care, and gaming, at the iPad 2 unveiling backed up the belief that the iPad would be in a new place for Apple, and the wide range of apps are extending this even further. So as Mac people, Apple people, we get spoiled.

Leaving aside personal preference for one OS or another right now, I've grown somewhat fatigued about iOS in general. Between my iPod Touch and two iPads, the design doesn't seem to have been dramatically upgraded since launch. A little faster here, a little multitasking there, some folders in another area, and the product incrementally proceeds. So too feels the upgrade from iPad (the original) to iPad 2. For existing iPad owners, like myself, the push to upgrade from version one to two is not a big one - unless you can get a sucker to buy the previous rev for a good price on eBay.

What we've come to expect Apple to do - not just the first time, but every time - is to take a big leap, and put themselves on the line for all mankind, with Steve Jobs, the immortal one (we would hope), playing the role of superhero. The floppy disk? Consider it slain. Proprietary networking? Dead. The optical drive? Rolling in the grave. Maybe the next step is to walk away from boxed software altogether? Maybe it's to do away with all wires? What I wouldn't give for a real device with true wireless power...

In the iPad 2, Apple didn't take any risks with the size of the product. No 7-inch model. No small/medium/large, with the exception being the amount of Flash memory and 3G option. And if you were blown away by SmartCovers, then I believe as an industry we're focused on the wrong things. As a long-time Mac viewer, I remember Steve Jobs introducing the Flower Power and Dalmation-colored iMacs, and the iPod Socks (for real) that could protect your iPod while simultaneously confirming you as a doofus.

As Apple pushes forward with the iPad 2, which we can safely say now will be both the volume leader and revenue leader in tablets for the foreseeable future, competitors from all corners, from HP to Blackberry to LG to Samsung to Motorola are preparing alternatives with platforms that quite possibly are more innovative than iOS today. The HP WebOS is worth peeking at. Honeycomb (Android 3.0) is compelling. The PlayBook remains to be seen, but maybe there's a niche out there for it.

I'm all for buying the latest and greatest stuff. It's fun and it's got serious geek bragging rights. If I didn't already have iPads, I would take a serious look at the iPad 2. But I believe I already have the very best product from Apple that is on the market today - the MacBook Air. The Air is a major reason I haven't fallen in love with the iPad. The light portability and thinness of the Air, plus a real keyboard and a real non-mobile OS. While Apple held serve with the iPad 2, it didn't take the risks that we love from Cupertino. It may have the app numbers now, but I can get practically all the apps I want on Android, and the aspects of that OS seem more comfortable and more designed for a cloud-centric era. If this is the Post-PC era, the OS has to be there too, not just the hardware. So Apple, great job, nice work, but I want more. Take a risk with us, so we can do the same with you.

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