So the first reviews are in for the iPad mini and the fourth generation iPad. It's pretty clear where the tech media stands, but how will customers react? Will Apple be able to keep up the sales momentum in the face of increased competition from the Google Android platform and the arrival of the Microsoft Surface?
Let's put the facts on the table: The Surface is getting mostly mixed reviews. The hardware is good enough, though there are some glitches. The kickstand has sharp edges, for example, which threaten to bite into a delicate surface, such as a glass computer table, and it's definitely not suited to use on your lap. The portrait mode for reading books and magazines may be an afterthought.
Getting past the hardware, the curious way in which Windows 8 was ported to ARM can only cause confusion. It appears to simply mirror the traditional x86 version, meaning there's actually a Windows desktop lurking in there. Aside from touch support, it appears Microsoft has done nothing to tailor the OS towards a tablet rather than a traditional PC. Worse, there's a dearth of apps, and the situation will only get better if lots of customers buy Surfaces. It's the cart before the horse syndrome, where customers wait for apps, and developers wait for market share.
With the iPad mini, the major criticism is price. Apple should have found a way to keep the final cost below $300. There is the perception that Amazon and Google have set a $199 standard, admittedly with little or no prospect for decent profits, and Apple has no business asking for $130 more for a product they perceive to be in the same category.
But is it the same category? After all, the iPad mini has a 7.9-inch screen with a standard aspect ratio, while the others are 7 inches, with widescreen displays. That makes for a huge difference in screen real estate, particularly in the landscape orientation. They're hardly comparable even if you ignore the iOS and large app ecosystem that Apple offers.
The reviews offer the usual complements. The iPad mini is slim, sleek, snappy and great to look at. That the display isn't retina is only a minor impediment, with text only a tad fuzzier than on a higher resolution Android tablet. In the scheme of things, a real retina display ought to be at the top of Apple's list for the next version.
The fourth generation iPad does what the third generation model does, only faster. The key changes are use of the new Lightning connection port, which will help spur accessory makers to get with the program and update their add-ons. There's also a true HD FaceTime camera. But if you own the previous version, these factors are probably not enough to encourage you to switch. Wait till next year, when Apple may actually find ways to make it thinner and lighter, and, of course, a bit more powerful.
Through all this, it's clear that Apple had to revitalize the iPad lineup ahead of the holiday season. Amazon and Google are very aggressively marketing their tablets. Microsoft is putting loads of money into boosting Windows 8 and the Surface RT, although the ads seem poorly produced. In fact, they're downright annoying, and do little to tempt people to consider Microsoft as relevant, at least in my opinion.
Meantime, early demand for the new iPads is clearly high. You have to wait two weeks if you place your online order for an iPad mini right now; it's a week for the new (new new?) iPad. Both will be available at retailers on November 2, assuming stocks hold up, and, if sales are encouraging, Apple will report the first weekend's results next week.
As far as Apple's executive shakeup is concerned, most people won't notice, or care if they did. This is a game of inside baseball, but there are clearly strong reasons for Tim Cook to have acted as he did in getting rid of the iOS chief, Scott Forstall, and the head of the retail division, John Browett. In the wake of this announcement, the media has been filled with unconfirmed reports about the alleged bad blood between Forstall and other Apple executives. I'm sure reports of such behavior, if true, aren't going to help enhance Forstall's resume or prospects for future employment. But he's also a multimillionaire several times over, so it's not as if he has to worry about his next paycheck. He's still going to get a salary from Apple as an advisor to Tim Cook for a while, but maybe that's being done to keep him off the employment market till next year.
If there's any negative in Apple's current situation, it's in Mac sales. The late arrival of the iMac, with the 21.5-inch version due in November and the 27-inch version due in December, will depress sales somewhat, although notebooks get an 80% share. Current iMacs are going to hit the closeout bins, but it may not help, except, perhaps, for people who still crave an internal optical drive.
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