The iPad 2's new features: Which rumors are realistic?

Every small-time blogger and analyst seems to know what the next iPad will offer, but most seem to be making it up

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USB port. Apple is continually criticized for not adding ports to its mobile devices; it uses its own proprietary 30-pin port for pretty much everything except audio out. Of course people who want there to be a USB port are predicting the iPad 2 will have one, as is predicted for each new Apple device model. Apple dislikes ports, as they add to the device's complexity and mess up the sleek lines of the product. Apple has been steadily reducing the ports on its Macs for years (adding a second USB port to the new MacBook Airs was a pullback from its overreduction in the original model), and it's been port-light on the iPhone since Day 1, so I seriously doubt we'll see a USB port on the iPad 2. Maybe we'll see the Camera Connection Kit adapter support a broader range of USB devices than it does now (today, just cameras).

My only hesitation in saying flat-out not to expect a USB port on the iPad 2 is that the European Union in mid-2009 required mobile phone makers to support a common port for power, which is MicroUSB, effective in 2010 or 2011. Apple agreed to the proposal, and I suspected at the time it would handle this requirement not by adding a MicroUSB port to its devices but by providing a MicroUSB adapter to its 30-pin dock. But if there's a chance the iPad will get a (Micro)USB port built in, it'll be this EU regulation that makes it happen.

Universal 3G radio and SIM. As much as I'd like to see these capabilities, which would allow the iPad to run on any network in the world and not be tied to any carrier, I don't see Apple getting the carriers to agree. After all, the carriers are all about locking the customer into their networks, which they achieve by having SIMs locked to their networks. In the United States, the situation is worse because the four main carriers also use different radio bands and two incompatible radio technologies: GSM and CDMA. Much of the world uses GSM technology and similar radio spectrum, so a near-universal iPad (and iPhone) is possible. In fact, we already have it: Just swap out the SIM for another to change networks in most of the world. But CDMA doesn't use SIMs, so that solution can't be expanded to include Verizon and Sprint in the United States.

Will Apple create a multiradio iPad to handle the unique situation of two incompatible technologies on three nonoverlapping 3G radio bands in the United States? On one hand, that strategy would give Apple a single device to manufacture, which is simpler to manage. On the other hand, that strategy would increase the cost for each model for everyone in the world just to handle a U.S.-specific problem. I bet we'll see two editions: a GSM version that will add T-Mobile's radio spectrum to the currently supported bands, and a CDMA version that could work on Verizon and Sprint. But it's a close bet. And even if the devices support all four U.S. carriers, that doesn't mean Apple will reach agreements with all four.

[Updated Jan. 11, 2011]Given that Apple designed a separate iPhone model for Verizon Wireless, I'm betting we'll see a separate iPad model for Verizon as well.

What the iPad 2 really needs
The iPad would benefit from most of what the rumormongers would like to see, but they're not essential capabilities. Apple is no doubt working on some surprise "and another thing" technology -- wireless USB, perhaps? -- for the iPad 2 or some later model, in addition to the more predictable hardware improvements.

What I also hope it's doing is making the iPad more able to act as a computer. The iPad is already pretty darn good hardware, but it has software gaps that need filling.

The biggest gap in the iPad is the Safari browser. It's not equal to the desktop Safari browser, which means a lot of websites and cloud services don't work on it. That needs to change -- especially if Google's forthcoming Chrome OS and the cloud-only laptops that run it end the inequality that mobile Chrome also suffers vis à vis its desktop version.

After that, the iPad needs to be more keyboard-friendly such as by adding the full complement of shortcuts found on a Mac to the iPad's on-screen keyboard (as well as to external keyboards, which now support only some shortcuts), so textual apps require less shifting by the user between on-screen buttons and the keyboard. Doing so would also equalize the iPad with the MacBook and let it be Apple's new-era answer to the netbook, without cutting into the MacBooks' hard-core applications advantage.

Neither of these software improvements is as sexy as a hardware upgrade. But they'd be more useful. And they'd improve the iPad 1, too.

This article, "The iPad 2's new features: Which rumors are realistic?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

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