Where the iPad needs to go from here

Apple's hugely successful iPad could rest on its laurels -- but shouldn't

What do you do as an encore for a a runaway hit such as the Apple iPad? Apple has sold more of them than HP has sold PCs. Android-based competitors such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Motorola Droid Xyboard have gotten little adoption: Android devices account for just 5 percent of tablets in enterprises, and an unknown minority in consumer sales given the lack of real sell-through data from Android vendors -- itself a sign of poor sales. And the Amazon.com Kindle Fire, more an e-reader than a true tablet computer, has sold well, but not at the iPad's expense.

Many companies would just keep churning out such a successful product, periodically adding cosmetic enhancements but nothing more. After all, the less you invest, the more profit you make when you have a runaway bestseller. We've certainly seen this approach play out in automobiles and PCs. It took the success of the MacBook Air and the iPad to scare Intel enough to come up with an Ultrabook specification for a truly better PC, something neither it nor the multitude of PC makers have shown any real interest in making for years. And even today, what PC makers have done with that Ultrabook spec is underwhelming.

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Apple surprised everyone last year when it announced the iPad 2, a major rework of the already amazing original iPad announced just a year earlier. Apple usually takes two or three years to do that level of rework, focusing instead on incremental improvements for a year or two to keep buyers interested while doubling down on bigger, higher-impact changes on a two- or three-year cycle. That's been the pattern with the Macintosh, iPod, and iPhone lines for a decade, after all.

So I fully expect the iPad likely to debut in March or April to be an iPad 2S, not an iPad 3 -- it'll likely have the Siri voice-based assistant technology, a faster processor, perhaps LTE 4G radios, maybe a higher-resolution display (like the iPhone's Retina display), and I hope an improved rear camera.

4G is no certain bet for several reasons: In the United States, coverage is limited, mainly to parts of a couple dozen cities on Verizon Wireless network, and availability outside the country is rare, which works against Apple's local strategy. And current-generation LTE radios are power hogs, so Apple is not going to compromise its beloved 11-hour iPad battery life for an early-days network. A Retina display would be nice, but let's be honest: It didn't ultimately redefine the iPhone's user experience, so adding the processing power for quadruple the number of pixels may not be the best use of performance enhancements. 

Maybe Apple will reposition the awkwardly placed volume rocker, which now is easily pressed by accident when you hold an iPad horizontally with a Smart Cover in use. But otherwise I suspect the next iPad to be very much like the current iPad 2 -- just as the iPhone 4S was to the iPhone 4.

Why Apple doesn't need to reinvent the iPad this year
That's OK for 2012, given how Android tablets seem to be stuck. Not only are buyers largely ignoring them, so are device makers. There are still none that come with the new Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" operating system, which for tablets is not a huge improvement over the Android 3 "Honeycomb" predecessor. So Android 4 itself won't transform Android's largely inferior user experience and ecosystem of apps and services. And you see nowhere the number of Android tablets announced as you do Android smartphones -- it feels very much like the device makers are having second thoughts.

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