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Notes on the iPad 2 launch


The release of a new Apple device always provokes much beard-stroking at TUAW towers, and the iPad 2 was no exception. You've heard from Erica Sadun (whose neck beard is strictly metaphorical) about how raw specs don't matter and clean-shaven Chris Rawson asked if you're going to buy one. Over at our big sister Engadget, editor Josh Topolsky (facial hair status: uncertain) says we are all living in Apple's post-PC era.

As I actually have a beard to stroke, my credentials for thinking out loud are clearly outstanding. What follows here, then, is a list of some of my own thoughts and observations on some of the nooks and crannies of Wednesday's announcement that (I hope!) have been less well chewed over by the web's myriad commentators, pundits, and crackpots.

The post-PC device

I agree with most of what Steve Jobs said about the iPad being a "post-PC" device. I think it's fair to say that most casual computer use in the home these days is Internet access, with a light seasoning of more mundane tasks like photo processing, household accounting, shopping, and the like. The iPad is pretty good at most of this stuff, barring Flash video and long-form text entry; but then again most typing activity these days is Facebook status updates, Twitter posts, one-line emails, and SMS messages. Longform text is becoming old-fashioned.

The well-roundedness of the iPad experience only makes it all the more jarring that the first thing that happens when you take one out of the box is the nagging screen that refuses to let you do anything at all until you tether it to iTunes. Contrast with Android tablets, which work out of the box, or the Kindle, which ships with your Amazon account details already in place and awaiting your password (which is very slick indeed). This is a snag in the experience of owning an iPad that is only made more prominent by how smooth everything else you do with it is.

Another small example of how the iPad isn't quite there yet: iMovie. The iMovie demo was impressive, and simple video editing is one of those applications that lends itself to a touchscreen very well. But consider: are you really going to shoot that much video with the iPad itself? Personally, I think the size and proportions of the device would make you feel rather foolish if you were chasing a toddler around with it. The more natural solution to my mind is to shoot the video on an iPhone then compile and edit it on an iPad -- but how can you transfer the clips from one to the other? The answer is to tether them both to iTunes (with actual pieces of copper, no less! How quaint!) and use it as a go-between. This process feels more and more antediluvian with every passing year.

UPDATE: Tyler Gentles on Twitter reminded me that you can use a Dock cable and the USB dongle from the iPad Camera Connection Kit to copy photos and videos from an iPhone to an iPad.

The iPad isn't -- yet -- a standalone device. If it were there'd quite possibly be a lot of people out there using it as their only computer, and I don't know anyone in that situation -- do you, reader? For it to become a herald of the post-PC era, it will need to cut the umbilical cord. The future is cloudy with a chance of iTunes, I think.

The Smart Cover

The Smart Cover is clever indeed, although fractionally less innovative than it appeared to me at first glance -- it turns out that Incase produce a "magazine" case for the first iPad that has the same concertina type design, albeit with a different clamping action. (An aside: if, like me, you are an iPad 1 owner with burning Smart Cover envy but unsure about whether the upgrade to the 2 is worth the money, the Incase product might sooth your ardour. I plan on picking one up this week.)

People have gone so far as to proclaim that the Smart Cover is a must-have accessory and that they cannot imagine anyone buying an iPad without it. I suspect Cody Fink has captured a lot of people's thinking in that post, which makes the Smart Cover a very cunning way to sneak a de facto $39 price rise into the iPad's RRP. Don't overlook that the cheaper neoprene cover only comes in bright pastel colours or a shade of grey. The arguably more desirable black, navy and tan colours are only available in the $69 leather version, which is a fiendishly clever upsell on Apple's part. I daresay the margins on Smart Covers are pretty high, as I'm sure they are on $29 iPad VGA cables and $19 Dock cables. Apple's tablet competitors are having trouble competing on price, and I do wonder if Apple are willing to tolerate thinner margins on the iPad itself because they know they can make handsome returns on the accessories.

Unlike some, I still think there'll be a solid (albeit reduced) market for third party cases, and indeed we've already had a number of announcements. As ugly as Apple's case for the first iPad is, I've been glad of it when I have occasionally bashed my iPad's corners against something, generally whilst carrying it around the office. People like to carry iPads everywhere and people like to protect expensive gadgets, and the Smart Cover is just that -- a cover, not a case. There's plenty of room for alternatives. Also the clever magnetic retention mechanism Apple have designed will, I'm sure, spill over to third party cases and we'll see some interesting use made of it.

Speaking of the magnets, to my mind one of the really impressive things about the Smart Cover that I've not seen many people talk about was how simply it can be removed from and replaced on the device. People who bought a dock and an Apple case for the first iPad and discovered they were utterly incompatible with one another will know exactly what I mean. This is the first case-to-device coupling I've seen that tops the Kindle.

I think the most interesting thing about the Smart Cover, though, is what I tweeted yesterday: "Smartest thing about the Smart Cover? Android tablet OEMs only see and sell specs; Apple sell a full experience that goes beyond the device."

I didn't particularly mean this to sound like Android OEMs have a limited vision because they are unimaginative schmucks, although I think perhaps that's how it came across. It's more because an Android tablet, like a Windows PC, is a patchwork quilt of products where each square is made by a different company. It is Apple's vertical integration, the fact they make the entire quilt, that means their remit is much wider: everything from the apps you use on the device to how the device is propped up on your desk. They don't get to walk away from any part of that picture whilst shrugging and saying "that's not quite right but it's not my job to fix it".

Although this is a weakness of the sell-an-OEM-OS model like Android and Windows, it's also a strength because it gives rise to an ecosystem with far greater device and price point diversity than Apple can deliver as one company. I'm perhaps more bullish on Android tablets in 2011 than some Apple commentators. I do not want the iPad 2 to have delivered a "death blow" to the competition and I think one would need to have a pretty narrow world view to believe that's a desirable outcome. Rather, I hope that competing tablets will find customers in meaningful volumes, which in turn will keep Apple on their toes with the inevitable iPad 3. Competition is good and -- as Microsoft's imaginative stagnation has shown -- monocultures are bad.

Sensor rich computing

One final footnote about the Smart Cover. I have long considered that as successive iOS devices are released, we are increasingly moving towards an era of sensor rich computing. These devices can tell where they are and how fast they are travelling with the GPS and which direction they are facing with the compass; they can sense movement through motion sensors and gyroscopes; they can look at their surroundings with cameras, measure brightness with the ambient light sensor and hear through their microphones. And now, the iPad can tell when its case is closed or open. With each passing iteration of the hardware, these devices are becoming better and better at interacting with their surroundings.

The faster A5 CPU

Note that Jobs described the CPU as being "up to twice as fast" whilst also pointing out it is a dual-core chip. This strongly suggests that raw clock speed hasn't changed, and that therefore when running heavy single threads the CPU isn't any faster at all. It also means that many legacy apps that don't receive dual core tweaking updates might not get all that much faster -- although the ability of the OS to hive processing threads away from UI handling threads will make the UIs feel much snappier, which counts for a lot. Finally, don't forget that some of the speedups people have reported seeing in Safari will come from yet another round of optimisations in iOS 4.3, which older devices will be getting next week.

Also importantly, the transformation of "dual core" into a buzzword that competitors were using to beat Apple with has been neatly neutered.

The mis-quoted Samsung CEO

This needlessly sensationalist piece by Seth Weintraub for CNN Money nevertheless does make the good point that the quote Jobs put on his slide from the CEO of Samsung that suggested that Galaxy Tab sales were "quite small" was incorrectly translated by the Wall Street Journal and later retracted. Frankly, I'd say using the quote in the original mistranslated form to take a swipe at Samsung was questionable and inappropriate. I suppose it's possible that Apple's famous attention to detail somehow failed to uncover the widely reported correction to a quote it was going to paint across the wall behind the CEO in letters fifty feet across, but somehow I doubt it.

I think when a company takes the time to call out multiple competitors by name, it's usually a sign of weakness or insecurity. Apple is clearly not in any position of weakness, though, so to my ears it just came over as smug self-satisfaction. Perhaps as a Brit I have a lower tolerance for that sort of thing than Americans do -- certainly I've read many commentators who cheered Jobs on as he put the boot in to Samsung, Motorola, and Android. Personally, I didn't like that aspect of the announcement. The iPad is a strong enough product to not need tactics like this.

iTunes Home Sharing

Finally. What took so long?

The bottom line

Overall, Apple delivered modest upgrades in numerous areas (raw processing grunt; weight and size; cover retention mechanism; cameras) that add up to a tasty package. If it had been taking pre-orders in the UK on the date of the announcement I would probably have been unable to restrain myself. It didn't, however, and after sleeping on it I decided I'll probably be sticking with the iPad mark 1 for the time being. Many people will tell you this means Apple have somehow committed "ZOMG #FAIL" with the iPad 2, which is simply cobblers. Apple remain the one to beat in the tablet market.

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