The empire strikes back
It took everyone else around three years to come up with an adequate response to Apple's launch of the original iPhone, but the response to the iPad has been a lot more rapid. As well as the wave of Android Honeycomb tablets about to hit us, there are the BlackBerry and HP ones to throw into the mix.
This is what I think formed the overriding context for the launch of the iPad 2 this evening. It wasn't a product launch, it was a riposte. A slap in the face of all these other companies that had the impudence to think they could out-Apple Apple. How dare they?
This is why I think Steve Jobs himself checked out of his medical leave to run the show. It has to be said: Apple gives good press event - arguably the best. But the patter and liberal sprinkling of superlative and hyperbole is so well rehearsed by now that there's no need for Jobs himself to tell us how much better a place the world will be from now on.
But any message has far more resonance when delivered by Jobs than any of his, doubtless able, deputies. And it was clear that Jobs had a point to make that he wanted everyone to hear, which was this: we own the tablet market and can raise our game any time, so suck on that Android.
Jobs started by chucking a few figures about, as is his wont. Developers have apparently made $2 billion from selling apps through Apple to date. Also, Apple recently topped the 100 million mark for iPhone units shipped - impressive if irrelevant.
Onto the first iPad, Jobs said: "...people questioned whether it was an 'unbelievable' price, well ask our competitors." This kicked-off an extended spell of gloating from Jobs, during which he scorned the efforts of Apple's competitors to bring a tablet to the market. He laughed in the face of the Samsung Galaxy Tab and blew metaphorical raspberries at Android Honeycomb. BlackBerry and HP didn't even merit a mention.
I got the sense that the battle with Android has become very personal for Jobs. Google CEO Eric Schmidt used to sit on the Apple board, and it used to be the two of them against horrid Microsoft. It seems Jobs feels Google should have let Apple do its mobile device thing and stuck to search. Of course Google has stuck to search, but expanded it to mobile devices.
The ultimate below-the-belt moment was when a slide came up stating there are already 65,000 apps specifically for the iPad. This was followed by a slide showing the Honeycomb Android/bee logo with the number ‘100' under it, stating that's how many Honeycomb apps there are. Miaow!
Eventually Jobs got around to introducing his new product, and there are some decent improvements, including the brand new A5 chip, a thinner chassis, and some nice bells and whistles. My initial impression was that this was an incremental improvement, designed to offer just enough new tech-porn to steal some thunder from rival launches.
While the prices remain the same, this means the older version will be cheaper. Jobs made a point of having a pop at the $800 price point, which is what the Motorola Xoom is going for in the US. My feeling is, counter-intuitively, that Apple's biggest advantage in the tablet market (apart from momentum) is price.
After the product launch, Jobs' parting shot was that nobody else really gets tablets. I have to admit that I scoffed when Jobs positioned the iPad as a whole new category a year ago, but that's exactly what it's turned out to be, despite the efforts of some market researchers to designate it a PC or a smartphone. Tablets are clearly neither.
Job's mantra is that the iPad is a post-PC product. "Our competitors are looking at this like it's the next PC market; that is not the right approach to this," he said. "These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive. The hardware and software need to intertwine more than they do on a PC. We think we're on the right path with this."
No argument there, and I'm happy to concede that Apple is the master of user interface and making technology intuitive. But Jobs' inference is that nobody else is capable emulating Apple, even a year or two down the line. And at the same time he seems outraged that they would have the temerity to try. I suspect he might find there are still plenty of unrepentant sinners in the market that don't agree with him.