Why should we care about the new iPad?
Because it is the future of computing
In the media's mad rush to cover every tiny detail of this newest iPad — how fast is its processor, what kind of screen resolution does it have? — the most important question often tends to be forgotten: Why does any of this matter?
Indeed, the average guy or girl watching the coverage at home can be excused for wondering why he/she should give a damn about something called a retina display or an A5X processor.
We journalists haven't always done a very good job at explaining why such things are important. But they are.
While retina displays and A5X processors may sound like unimportant trivialities, they are in fact small pieces of a puzzle that, when fitted together, point to the future of computing and where society is heading.
Apple's latest gizmo, simply named the iPad — as opposed to the iPad 3 or iPad HD, which many had been expecting — has several improvements over its predecessors, including better processing speed, graphics, wireless capability and camera, all of which are designed to expand its reach.
The device, which goes on sale in Canada and several other countries on Mar. 17, is Apple's effort to raise the ante in what it is calling the "post-PC" society. In other words, a society that relies less and less on often bigger, bulkier desktop and laptop computers.
As Apple CEO Tim Cook put it during his presentation in San Francisco on Wednesday, "the iPad is the poster child for the post-PC world."
It was only a few years ago that such tasks as crunching data, creating digital content and connecting to the internet — collectively known as "computing" — could only be done on an actual computer.
But then a few years back, smartphones, with their email, web surfing and other computing capabilities, started slicing into that world. Two years ago, Apple further chopped it up with the original iPad, popularizing tablets, and the computing world became a changed place.
Replacing flight manuals
At first, no one really knew what the iPad was going to do.
It was expected — largely wrongly — that it would revitalize the publishing business, since it was the perfect device on which to read digital magazines, newspapers and books.
While such applications have indeed done well, tablets have obviously touched a much wider audience, as evidenced by the tens of millions sold by Apple and its competitors so far.
Millions of people are using tablets to simply surf the web while watching television, which is easier than reaching for and turning on the computer (then waiting those endless 30 seconds or so while it comes to life).
But, more importantly, tablets are being used to do such important tasks as replacing flight manuals on commercial airplanes.
They are being employed by photographers and artists as portable portfolios; incorporated into schools as learning tools; and making possible new medical treatment software, among many other applications.
And yes, people are playing a lot of video games on them too.
With the exception of that last activity, these were all things that used to be done either on computers, or not digitally.
The new iPad's incremental improvements further propel the device into these kinds of creative endeavours.
A faster processor and better camera that allows for better graphics mean application developers can create more tools that can in turn be used by more people, whether they're pilots, artists, doctors or couch surfers.
Apple's own iMovie app, which can quickly import, edit and share high-definition videos shot on the tablet itself, is a good example of this kind of accessible, creative tool.
Cook seems to take previous criticisms of the iPad personally. When talking about the new features during his presentation, he made a point of saying, "don't let anyone ever tell you the iPad can't be used to create."
In the larger sense, Apple's iterative improvements also matter because the company is threatening to run away with the tablet category, much like it did with MP3 players a decade ago.
Apple's tablet market share is estimated at around 80 per cent, making it the dominant leader by far.
The new iPad is being introduced at the same price as the iPad 2 had been selling (the basic Wi-Fi version with 16 gigabytes of memory will be $519 in Canada).
The iPad 2 will stay on the market, but with a $100 price cut, which is bad news for competitors.
Some tablets, such as Amazon's Kindle Fire and Research In Motion's BlackBerry Playbook, had been picking up momentum recently thanks to their $200 price tags.
Both those tablets are widely believed to be selling at a loss, so a cheaper iPad 2 is only going to put further pressure on them.
By selling more and more iPads, Apple is trying to create its own snowball effect.
Tablets are, after all, only as good as what runs on them, namely apps, and it's here that Apple has the biggest advantage.
Application developers want their creations to reach the widest audience, since that's the biggest potential payoff, so they're naturally gravitating toward the iPad and its huge market share.
Jim Shelton, game design director for Namco Bandai Games America, took the stage on Wednesday to show off Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy, the company's latest app, which launches later this month.
In an interview afterward, he said the company's market power makes developing for the iPad over other tablets an easy decision.
"Obviously if you have a lot of people out there using the devices and the devices work really well, it doesn't hurt," he said.
With price and app momentum on its side, Apple stands a good chance at maintaining, if not growing, its domination of the tablet market.
That means that if the tablet truly is emerging as the "poster child" of the post-PC era, then Apple is well positioned to drive and dictate that future.
While that future may see less and less computing done on actual computers, more and more of it may be done on Apple devices.
That makes some people nervous — and rightfully so, since history is rife with examples of companies abusing their dominant positions.
But it's also not necessarily a bad thing. Microsoft's dominance of the PC era did provide society with some benefits — computers became standardized and were able to talk to each other, which sped the adoption of computing in general and information sharing on a wide scale.
The post-PC world is starting to look similar, only with Apple at the helm instead of Microsoft.