The Apple spiderweb continues to grow.
The lasting impact of yesterday's announcement of the company's much-anticipated tablet computer won't be the sleek, feather-light gadget itself. Rather, the iPad represents the latest tool in Apple's ongoing - and increasingly successful - effort to lure consumers in with stylish gizmos that subsequently require them to buy and download most, if not all, their movies, music, books and applications exclusively from Apple's online stores.
"Announcements of this magnitude from Apple are almost never about the hardware," said independent technology analyst Carmi Levy. "The hardware is a hook to the wider ecosystem."
Indeed, amidst the hype of the iPad unveiling were several far more important announcements: by launching iBooks, a digital bookshop in its iTunes store, Apple CEO Steve Jobs now has his sights set on competitors such as Amazon, positioning the iPad as a direct competitor to Amazon's Kindle book-reader.
By partnering with several big-name publishers and content providers such as The New York Times, Apple stakes its claim to the digital publishing market, one of the few areas of electronic entertainment where it doesn't already have an established presence.
Mr. Jobs described the tablet yesterday as the most advanced technology in Apple's history: "better than the laptop, better than the smart phone."
But despite several glowing reviews from critics about everything from its crystal-clear screen to its blazing speed, the tablet essentially represents a supercharged version of previous Apple products.
"[The iPad is]a very good replacement or upgrade for the iPod Touch, and that's about as faint a praise as you can offer," said Forrester analyst James McQuivey.
"Even Jobs himself tried to position this as a brand new category," he said. "And then he went on to introduce a very large iPod Touch."
The iPad is, essentially, a version of Apple's ultra-successful operating system for the iPhone and iPod Touch, tacked onto a larger, more powerful device. Among the device's many bells and whistles are Bluetooth , wireless and cellular network connectivity, multiple memory sizes to choose from at various prices and the ability to play all the applications currently available through Apple's online store.
Ultimately, however, the tablet doesn't represent a revolutionary step forward in Apple's product line. Because it can't handle multitasking, it is unlikely to replace products such as the laptop. Apple executives showed off the iPad's productivity tools by demonstrating new tablet-specific versions of the company's iWork suite - Apple's equivalent to Microsoft's Office. But perhaps the most significant aspect of the word-processing, presentation and spreadsheet applications Apple demonstrated is that they can be purchased and downloaded for about $10 each.
Indeed, for a company that already has 125-million users' credit-card numbers thanks to its existing purchase and download channels, getting people to spend between $500 and $830 (U.S.) on an iPad is good, but getting them to spend all their music, movie, book and application money through Apple's exclusive stores is better.
Analysts and critics will now have 60 days to mull over Apple's newest product before the first version of the iPad - equipped with wireless but not 3G cellular capability - is available for purchase. Unlike the iPhone launch, however, Canadians will be able to get their hands on the iPad at the same time as everybody else. Because the device will eventually be sold unlocked, Canadians should be able to buy an iPad and use their own SIM cards in the tablet, or simply use it on a Wi-Fi network.
It is unclear what data plans will eventually be available through Canadian carriers - representatives from Bell, Telus and Rogers refused to comment. In the U.S., Apple has managed to work out a deal with AT&T to provide an unlimited iPad data plan for $30 with no contracts - terms that are virtually unheard of for high-end communication devices north of the border.
But by the time Apple turns to negotiating with the Canadian carriers, the AT&T deal may well prove a positive precedent for Canadian customers.
"[The AT&T deal will]begin to socialize consumers to expect more data for less, and that has an implication for when negotiations happen in Canada," said Kaan Yigit, president of the Toronto-based Solutions Research Group consultancy.
"If the gap between the American pricing structure and the Canadian pricing structure is too big, then that creates issues."
With a report from Iain Marlow