HANNOVER, Germany - When Apple launches its eagerly anticipated iPad 2 March 2 (note that this is Apple's gift to me on my birthday - it gives me a sure-fire story to write), the new product will be entering a world transformed from a year ago when the iPad made its debut. The original iPad (of which I am a satisfied owner) proved that tablet computers could be something beyond the industrial and enterprise devices that had been used for years in manufacturing, insurance and health care. Now you could do a vast number of tasks, from showing videos to helping pilots plan their instrument-landing approaches.
A happy confluence of factors served to make the iPad a huge success in a field where there have been few successful products, much less significant success stories. Those factors included the availability of technology that would allow the construction of a tablet that was thin enough, light enough, would have enough battery life and be designed well enough to meet the broad acceptance it needed. In the process, the Apple and the iPad effectively defined the standard of what a consumer tablet should be.
But just because Apple defined a standard doesn't mean that the rest of the industry was required to be bound by it. Almost as soon as the iPad made its debut and the industry realized that such a device would sell in large numbers, other options became available. While the first attempts were limited in their success, it wasn't long before tablet devices became better and offered more features than the iPad. Now, Apple is launching its new version and incorporating some of the new features that the industry has shown to be significant improvements, and things that consumers were willing to pay for.
In some cases, those consumers were demanding things that Apple was unlikely to ever produce, such as the smartcard and fingerprint readers that the Fujitsu Q550 is offering enterprise users. Other demands that were too strong to ignore, such as cameras, will be matched by Apple when the iPad arrives March 2. But will Apple be able to match such things as the 3D camera on LG's new tablet? Or the 3D display from Acer?
The problem is there are too many features for any company to offer on a single tablet. Here at the CeBIT show, there are (at last count) 39 vendors of tablet computers. Even after you subtract the industry-specific tablets, that leaves something like 25 general-purpose tablets, most of which will be offered to the public in one way or another. For the most part, those tablets are running Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" or Microsoft Windows 7, but many are providing some compelling features.
Asus, for example, is offering a 12-inch Eee Slate tablet that runs Windows 7, and includes a Wacos digitizer pen and compatible screen. You can still use this as a touch-screen tablet, but the inclusion of a digitizer means that you can produce hand-drawn images at a level of detail that the iPad can't meet. Asus is releasing four tablets plus an e-reader by April, and two of the Android Honeycomb devices also offer both styli and touch screens. Likewise, a meeting with Acer revealed several new tablets, including one that could produce 3D images (but you have to wear glasses).
But as I've said before, there is more to a tablet than a list of features. The challenge that Apple faces is knowing in advance what features will be in high demand, and which are just window dressing. Unfortunately, nobody can really make this call with significant accuracy including Apple. What Apple excels at is creating a feature or capability that the company thinks will be popular, and offering it before anyone else does. The company did this with the full-screen face of the iPhone, it did it with the iPad, and once upon a time, it did it with the iPod. Apple also did it with features like the accelerometers that appeared in the iPod and the iPad over time.
But now, with 39 competitors all thinking of new, cool and marketable features, Apple has a lot of work to do. While there's no doubt that the iPad 2 will sell well, there's also no doubt that some other tablet maker will introduce some feature that everyone wants. Will 3D cameras make the cut? Probably not. But how about the ability to add information to the iPad easily, such as through an SD card slot or a USB connector? Since virtually every other tablet on the market has one or the other (and mostly both) isn't it time that Apple provided this capability?
And that's the biggest challenge that Apple has to face. At the current rate of development in the tablet market, innovations are happening every day. Some of these are too important to wait for Apple's traditional annual product cycle. But will Apple be able to keep the iPad 2 relevant for the next year in the face of the current pace of innovation? Only Apple can decide, but if the company is to keep the momentum it has now, that's something it must do.