(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Boy, leave town on the day Apple (AAPL) introduces its new iPad and you can come back to all sorts of sturm und drang. Did the big sun storm hit early and scramble everyone's synapses?
A little bit of perspective shows how those who dismiss the new iPad as a disappointment or, contrarily, chant "Apple can do no wrong" both need some time away from the tech bonfires. There's more to the new tablet version than critics think. At the same time, those who think that Apple and its products reside in a Shangri-La of perfection are blinded by their own allegiances -- and aren't doing the company any favors by it.
Mashable's Lance Ulanoff is among the more reasonable commentators who think that the iPad announcement was a letdown. His main observation was that the new device simply isn't new enough:
That said, it's been a while since we've seen completely new hardware or a product redesign from Apple (iPad 2 launched in January 2011). In the interim, I've attended two Apple product events that make me wonder if we're seeing some sort of strategic shift. Have we come so far in technology, especially industrial design, that Apple has no choice but to slow down?
It's obvious to me that most tablet manufacturers are running out of ways to differentiate their products. A good number of the tablets I saw in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress were indistinguishable from one another. At least the iPad New is recognizably, uniquely Apple. Perhaps Apple's next iPad design is so radical that it can't be accomplished in a year.
The question is one of design. If you think you've come up with a "form factor" and approach that works, you shouldn't radically change it. The iPad has been a hit, so why is it necessary to create a completely different iPad, unless you've found a better way to deliver an experience that people want.
There are two types of innovation that must coexist. One is revolutionary, in which you take a giant, but incomplete, step forward. Since the results are never perfect, evolutionary innovation is every bit as vital, in which a revolutionary idea is gradually refined and improved. All companies must go through these dual processes. Why fault Apple for it?
Maybe the disappointment relates in part to the fact that Apple often handles this evolutionary development internally. It might go through many versions of an interface or technology before it releases a new product. The iPhone was years in the making, for instance. Incremental steps are effectively invisible to the public, who only see the major jumps in innovation.
By contrast, the latest iPad is an example of an evolutionary change taking place in public, rather than within the lab. Apple watcher and fan John Gruber reacted to an Associated Press reporter calling the expected improvements "modest":
I suspect this is a prelude to much of tomorrow's post-event coverage, echoing the initial tech press reaction to the iPhone 4S. But if a faster processor, more RAM, a double-the-resolution retina display, a better camera, and maybe even [Long-Term Evolution] networking make for a "modest" update, then what would it take for the iPad 3 to be deemed an immodest update? A fusion energy source? Teleportation? A camera that sees into the future?
Gruber gets blinded by his affection for the company and its products. Would the combination of better display, camera, and LTE be considered modest if the company were any other than Apple? Probably.
The changes are modest because some of the iPad's enhancements -- like LTE (a successor technology to 3G) or a 5 megapixel camera -- only catch up to features that are already commercially available. Voice dictation on a computer? That's been around for years. And the new iPad's high-resolution display would have been momentous -- had the iPhone 4 not already offered that feature (Conversely, it's important to realize that you're seeing an important change in the way information will be perceived. At 300+ ppi -- pixels per inch, the screen equivalent of dots per inch in print --, what sits in front of you is a moving photograph that will make magazine pages look dead in comparison. I'd expect other vendors -- particularly Samsung, which has all that display making expertise -- to join the movement very soon.)
In an odd way, Apple's defenders lower expectations and demands on the company. When you can do no wrong, any drive you might have had to beat expectations will soon atrophy.