It gets lonely at the top.
Apple's new iPad – cleverly named "The New iPad" – hit store shelves on Friday, prompting the now-familiar frenzy of early-morning diehards who wait for hours in line to get their hands on the gadget. Like the original iPad and the iPad 2, the newest iteration of the world's most popular tablet is by far the best device of its kind on the market – from its sleek, minimalist design to the breadth of the App Store.
But it's not revolutionary any more – it can't be, not when everybody has one, not when Apple sold 15-million iPads last quarter. At one time, Apple's top brass was happy to roll the dice on risky new products – the iPad being one of them. But now that the company finds itself with the most sought-after tablet and smartphone in the industry, it has become content to make relatively minor refinements to its product lines. With one exception (a brilliant new screen) the new iPad is full of such refinements.
What we're watching right now is Apple's prime – a time when it is at the top of its game, with huge profit margins and without serious challengers. There used to be a time when Steve Jobs' company delivered products that consumers didn't even know they wanted yet. Today, consumers know exactly what they want, and Apple is focused on giving them more of it.
The new iPad is a good illustration of this shift – an even more polished version of an already polished device. It's still the best tablet out there, but it's not going to surprise you.
By far the biggest improvement in the new iPad is the screen. Whereas it's difficult to tell the iPad 2 and its successor apart by simply looking at their outer shells, a quick glance at the screen reveals a stunning difference – the new tablet is far crisper. It's almost impossible to find any signs of pixilation on the home screen; all the icons look like HD photos. Everything looks better, from movies to photos to apps – although, when it comes to the latter, you'll really notice the difference if you download some apps that have been optimized for the new display (Evernote and The New York Times, among others).
The new back-facing camera (that is, the camera that's not on the same side as the screen) is also significantly improved. If you just hold the tablet up and snap away, you're still susceptible to blur, but the 5-megapixel brawn will give you much crisper images. The HD video recording is also better than just about anything out there that isn't a single-purpose camera.
Almost every improvement Apple has made to the iPad centres on visuals. In addition to the snappy screen and the beefed-up camera, the company has also released a pretty impressive version of the iPhoto software for the iPad. Like most iSoftware apps, this thing isn't designed to replace a pro tool such as Photoshop. But iPhoto does deliver a very powerful set of tools in a very easy-to-use package. A user simply picks a certain brush, for example, and swipes across a part of the screen to saturate or de-saturate, sharpen or soften. Instagram-ish filters are accessible with a couple of swipes. And if worse comes to worst, a single magic fix-it tool just does all the work for you. Another feature lets you throw your pictures into a virtual scrapbook, upload that scrapbook to Apple's cloud, and share a link to it with everyone you know. It takes about five minutes. Apple has become extremely proficient at developing software that lets amateurs feel like pros, and in that regard, iPhoto is a resounding success.
Under the hood, the new iPad features a more powerful processor than the previous version. In all likelihood, most of that new horsepower is going toward powering all those extra pixels on the screen. If you're just using your new iPad to play Angry Birds, you probably won't see much of a difference, which is sort of the point.
The new tablet also comes with the ability to run on next-generation cellular networks. In layman's terms, this means you'll be able to download stuff much, much faster than on a 3G cellular network. Keep in mind that 4G speeds are usually only available in most big cities, and it'll take a while before the telecos introduce this technology country-wide.
Pricing-wise, the new iPad follows a well-established scheme. The 16 gigabyte, WiFi-only version starts at $520. The highest-end version with 64 GB of space and both WiFi and cellular connectivity, will run you $850.
In addition, the iPad 2 is now $100 cheaper across all flavours. If you don't care about screen resolution, you're probably better off buying one of these tablets, which are indistinguishable from the new ones in size and design.
To be honest, the new iPad's only truly amazing feature is its screen. But it says a lot about Apple's track record that users now come to expect more than one amazing feature every time the company releases a new product. If any other electronics firm had put out a gadget that improved this much over a previous generation, it would be showered with acclaim – in Apple's case, everybody's already wondering what the next iPhone will look like.
The Apple that designed three revolutionary product lines – the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad – starting a little more than a decade ago was a hungry underdog, willing to take massive risks. Today, Apple is no longer that company. Instead, it is the most valuable technology firm in the world, the owner of the most popular brands in mobile electronics. The incentive to take huge risks on unproven gadgets is much lower today than it was when Apple was a struggling niche player and Steve Jobs was swinging for the fences on every pitch.
That's why the latest iPad is a refinement, not a revelation. More importantly, that's why the next groundbreaking gizmo probably won't come from Apple, at least not until competitors start producing devices that consumers want more than an iPhone or an iPad. Right now, in the tablet market, nobody has come close to doing that. And so Apple continues to coast, way ahead of the pack and with no reason to change course.