My new Apple iPad: Why it leaves rival tablets in the dust

To Apple, the third-generation iPad may be just an incremental update, but for rival tablet makers it's a crushing setback.

Apple upgraded its market-leading iPad while the rest of the field was still desperately trying to catch up with the previous version. Photo: Apple

As far as I can tell, there are two main schools of thought regarding the introduction of the new iPad.

The first is that it's an incremental update that will please the fans - or fanbois, if you want to be particularly dismissive - that it's a bit faster, has some next-generation mobile telecoms technology from which nobody outside the US or Sweden will actually benefit, that it has a better camera - not that anyone needs a camera in an iPad - and that it has a nicer screen.

Some of this faint praise is justified. After all, the LTE chip is a slow burner as far as non-US and non-Swedish residents are concerned, although faster 3G networks can theoretically be accessed. Meanwhile, the use case for a HD camera on tablets is still debatable.

The second school of thought is that Apple has released a new version of its market-leading product at a time when the rest of the market was still desperately trying to catch up with the previous version. And it's been introduced at the same price as the previous model.

Its predecessor, the iPad 2, was a better product than the competition and is still available and discounted. Now, thanks to the Retina Display and the other incremental updates, it leaves the competition for dead.

I've had my new iPad for a couple of days and it's an exceptional update. Much has been written about the new screen and its millions of pixels - and rightly so. It is demonstrably better than other tablet displays, a marvel to look at. Likewise, the boost in performance is welcome and speeds up the vast range of apps and opens up new possibilities for developers and gamers.

So the old model was whipping the opposition and the new one, costing exactly the same, is on the market. It's a tough time to be an iPad competitor.

Losing the struggle with Apple

Samsung recently admitted that it's losing the war against Apple. Hankil Yoon, a product strategy executive for Samsung, admitted the company was struggling to gain a foothold. "Honestly, we're not doing very well in the tablet market," he said during a media roundtable at the Mobile World Congress trade show in February. Although recent news of five million Galaxy Notes sold will no doubt cheer him up.

Put yourself in the mind of a product marketer at RIM or Samsung or Asus. Your tough job just got even tougher. Where do you compete? At what point of the marketing mix can you gain an advantage over Apple?

Price? Many were surprised the iPad wasn't more expensive than it was priced at launch. Amazon's Kindle Fire is aggressively priced but the theory is that the Fire is a loss-leader that will be recouped by content sales. If other tablet manufacturers try to undercut Apple by too much, they risk losing their margins and competing as commodity devices.

Product? You now have an iPad with Retina Displays sitting next to tablets that do not. I'm not a betting man but I'd wager that some of the multi-billion forward-looking component deals Apple CEO Tim Cook has alluded to have tied up supply of super HD monitors for the foreseeable future.

How about placement? Contrast an iPad in an Apple Store with a tablet in PC World. I regularly go to PC World to play with new Android tablets and the difference between the two retail experiences is striking. Pick up an iPad and there'll be lots of content behind it. Photos to manipulate and twist, albeit of a load of wholesome models snowboarding. Videos that can be played. A wide range of apps.

By contrast each PC World tablet has no videos or pictures other than those taken in store on the built-in camera. Pictures of the underside of people's chins and the backs of other tablets. It's much harder to get a feel for the device's capabilities.

No obvious weak spots for rivals to exploit

Across the mix, it's difficult to see a weakness, a place where competitors can plan an attack. Apple's brand is dominant, customer satisfaction with existing users is very high, it has strategic component deals that other competitors can only dream of and it has a marketing war chest without rival.

Finally, the audience for tablets is broader than we could have imagined. When Microsoft poured its efforts into invigorating the form factor some 10 years before the iPad arrived, it failed to capture the imagination. Now, the market for the poster child of post-PC devices is vast.

The tablet is the most significant market in computing at the moment. According to technology research company Canalys, PCs outsold tablets 20 to one in 2010, the year the iPad launched. In 2011 the landscape had dramatically changed. Although still ahead, PCs had only outsold tablets by six to one.

iPad sales are ramping up faster than either the iPhone and the iPod. At the Goldman Sachs conference in February, Apple CEO Tim Cook said the company had sold 55 million iPads.

"This 55 [million] is something no one would have guessed. Including us. To put it in context, it took us 22 years to sell 55 million Macs. It took us about five years to sell 22 million iPods, and it took us about three years to sell that many iPhones. And so, this thing is, as you said, it's on a trajectory that's off the charts."

Apple's trip to the wilderness and recent revival is proof that any business is capable of a great comeback. There's always a chance for Apple's competitors but it's getting harder.

Apple announced a new iPad. It's faster, more advanced, has better media and graphics, has future-looking mobile technology and the battery life is as good as before with the same leading content and app ecosystem. It was already way out in the lead and now it's launched a better product at the same price point.

Is it really just an incremental update? Or is it the seminal moment in the evolution of the post-PC world? The point at which Apple, already way ahead of the pack, changed up a gear, put its foot on the accelerator and disappeared out of sight.