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You may have heard that Apple dropped some science on us this morning, with the announcement of a boatload of new desktops, notebooks, and tablets. Under normal circumstances, we’d be focused entirely on the new iPad Mini, the new offering Apple has crafted to bust its way into the 7-inch tablet space. And if you take a gander at our front page, you’ll see that we’re giving the little guy more than its fair share of love. But there’s more news out there: the new, fourth generation iPad was also announced today, a full-size tablet some in the press have taken to calling the “iPad Maxi.”

No, that will not be our preferred moniker going forward.

The fourth-generation iPad got little more than five minutes of exposure at today’s announcement, and for good reason: it’s the epitome of an evolutionary product. We’re looking at the same form factor, the same display size, and even the same price points, with some iterative upgrades to the guts. Those upgrades include graduating to an A6X SoC providing double the processing and graphics performance, 720p FaceTime capability, and enhanced connectivity options. That’s about it. There’s so much same-ness here that even Apple’s own marketing copy doesn’t go out of its way to tell a different tale.

It’s pretty clear that Apple fully intended the star of today’s tablet show to be the iPad Mini, and used the buzz of the event to quietly iterate on the existing iPad. That’s fine; from an iOS perspective, the iPad Mini is a revolutionary enough device to keep our techno-lust satiated, and it would have been media suicide to hold an event just to show off the bigger iPad’s comparatively minor upgrades.

But for all its same-ness, the new iPad isn’t launching into the same world its predecessor did. Sure, the third-generation iPad debuted surrounded by a sea of 10-inch competitors, but none of them stood out from the pack, and certainly none of them offered any real competition to Apple’s tablet, which went on to smash sales records. As Tim Cook noted at today’s announcement, Apple “sold more iPads in the second quarter than any PC manufacturer sold of their whole PC lineup.” In Apple’s unscientific, but telling, web-traffic analysis, the iPad continues to clean house.

Apple’s competitors are doing all they can to turn the tide. When it launches on November 2, the fourth-generation iPad will arrive facing the most heavily-marketed, well-funded competition it’s ever faced: Microsoft’s Surface tablet, launching this week, and, likely a few months thereafter, Google’s alleged Nexus 10 slate. The lead time Apple enjoyed by creating the consumer tablet category with the original iPad, complete with the head-start of a mature ecosystem at launch, is finally evaporating as competitors find their feet after years of scrambling around in the mud. And we’re not talking about poor executions on half-baked third-party Android tablet ideas, or over-engineered Windows 7 tablet PCs; we’re talking real, focused competition.

But none of it will matter. Because the iPad will keep on beating everyone.

“To the comments, lads! We’ll give this Apple fanboy a pasting he won’t soon forget!”

The Nexus 10 is the toughest to comment on, because it’s the device we know the least about. Truthfully, at this point all we have are rumors; it’s entirely possible that Google and its hardware partner will cook up a world-beating tablet so hot that it cooks the skin off anyone who enters the same room with it. The company certainly surprised us with the Nexus 7, so we’re expecting great things from the 10-inch evolution of that product, should it materialize. But no chipset, display, connectivity, or form-factor breakthroughs will compensate for Android’s completely lackluster tablet-optimized app selection.

Google has certainly gotten better on the content side of the Google Play store, and Android apps run beautifully on the Nexus 7 -so much so that it’s become my preferred tablet over the iPad– but that’s because the apps scale better to a 7-inch than to a 10-inch display. The Nexus 7 performs better than other Android tablets not just because it’s a pure-Google-experience device, but by virtue of its smaller form factor. That advantage vanishes when Android is scaled up to ten inches and beyond, and it’s why Apple continues to have nothing to fear from Google until the latter finds a way to motivate developers to build beautiful Android tablet apps.

Even at 7 inches, Phil Schiller has a solid point.

Microsoft’s new Surface tablet is by far the more interesting competitor, for a host of reasons. For one, it will already be out and -theoretically- widely available when the fourth-gen iPad lands in stores. Also, it’s coming from a company that’s absolutely dedicated to making the underlying Windows 8 platform work; it’s literally the future of the corporation. Microsoft is also, despite its relative lack of visibility in the mobile space, still flush with enough resources to throw all of its weight behind Surface– and that’s a lot of weight.

But like a tank rolling over a chain-link fence, the iPad won’t feel any of that as it pushes onward in its dominance of the tablet space. Because no matter how much new-hotness Surface is bringing to the scene in the form of well-crafted hardware, unique innovative software, and big-name application support, it’s still the new kid on the block. Ordinary people don’t know what Surface is– just like they didn’t know what the HP TouchPad was until its post-mortem firesale, just like they’ll never know what the BlackBerry PlayBook is. And folks will never find out what Surface actually is if the marketing campaign is going to keep turning out ads like this:

I had two separate people ask me if this was a commercial for a Microsoft-made iPad case. Seriously.

“But,” goes the counter-argument, “the TouchPad and PlayBook were running dead-end OSes. Windows 8 is the future.”

This is a compelling counterpoint, and the real truth is we’re going to have to wait and see how Windows 8 does in the marketplace. I’ve made the point a few times on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, and I’ll make it again here: as Windows 8 penetrates more and more deeply into the desktop-computing space, I think a trickling-down of user preferences to tablets and smartphones is likely. That’s particularly true in light of iOS’ stagnancy from a UI perspective; Apple’s platform may still be dominating in tablets, but Android’s popularity in the smartphone sector has shown that many consumers will entertain, then tolerate, then prefer an alternate operating system, given enough time. Especially if it’s something as fluid and responsive as Windows 8. Assuming you agree that there’s room for a third platform in the mobile space, it’s almost a given that Windows will be it.

“Say what, now?”

But time, as always, is the problem. Microsoft has time and money to burn, but a vast amount of each will be spent before Surface even starts holding a candle to the iPad in terms of market share– or even mind share. In the meantime, Microsoft’s product is going to continue fighting through acres of darkness before it even approaches Apple’s flagship tablet, no matter how beautifully designed the Surface hardware and software may be. Because producing the technically superior product doesn’t always make you most popular (just ask Samsung), nor does building the most aesthetically pleasing product (just ask Nokia). Sometimes, it’s about time-in-grade, and biggest-ecosystem-standing, and widest-held-perception. In terms of sales, market share, and marketing, Apple is the company that continues to hold the best recipe for that unique cocktail of success. It won’t last forever, but for the time being, be prepared to keep seeing a lot more iPads than other tablets in your day-to-day device-ogling.


iPad facts & figures source: Apple

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