iPad2 coming on 2 March - but what new features will it bring?
Apple has sent out invites to an event on 2 March with a graphic, pictured above, showing a large '2' and the corner of a device that resembles the iPad - leaving little room for doubt that the iPad2 is about to be unveiled. "Come see what 2011 will be the year of," the invite proclaims.
Apple's original iPad was unveiled on 28 January 2010 - going on sale two months later, in April. By the end of 2010, Apple had shipped nearly 15 million iPads - encouraging rivals including HP, HTC, LG, Motorola, RIM and Samsung to work on slates of their own.
Rival slates have introduced smaller screen sizes to the tablet market with seven-inch offerings such as HTC's Flyer and RIM's as-yet-unlaunched PlayBook. There are also high-end - but expensive - Android-based products from Motorola and Samsung: the Xoom and Galaxy Tab respectively. HP's Touchpad - another slate that's still not out yet - includes a near-field communications (NFC) feature enabling web content to be shared contactlessly between the tablet and HP's forthcoming smartphone, the Pre3, by touching the two devices together.
While competition is certainly intensifying among tablets - fuelled by Google's announcement of Honeycomb, a dedicated tablet flavour of its Android OS - analysts say Apple is still enjoying its first mover advantage so the iPad2 is likely to be an evolution of the iPad, rather than a radical overhaul.
"Why fix something that's not broken?" said Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at analyst Gartner. "The bottom line with Apple is it's not just doing hardware for the sake of hardware... The iPad2 will be more of an evolution than a revolution."
iPad2: The speculation
Likely iPad2 features, according to silicon.com's Apple columnist Seb Janacek, include a faster processor, more RAM and storage; the addition of a camera or cameras - especially a front-facing camera for video-chat, aka FaceTime; and a thinner form factor.
More outlandish bets include a sort of iPad nano with a smaller screen size - to compete with rival seven-inch tablets; a significant upgrade to the screen resolution by bringing the iPhone 4's Retina Display to the iPad; a lower price tag to undercut rival slates; a slot for expandable memory; and even a USB for plugging in external devices, or a microUSB port to enable compatibility with universal chargers.
Such large changes are unlikely to be on Apple's road map for the iPad2, according to Nick Dillon, analyst at Ovum. "I would imagine the update won't be spectacular - it's going to be a fairly incremental upgrade, primarily since they did a pretty good job the first time around," he told silicon.com, adding: "The competition's been a bit slow off the mark. Aside from the Samsung Galaxy Tab, we haven't really seen any strong competition in the market so there's no real need for them to push things on too far."
Speculation abounds that Apple plans to include NFC tech in the next iteration of its iPhone smartphone - the iPhone5. But analyst Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis believes there's a chance a future iteration of the iPad will get an NFC reader so it can be used in conjunction with an NFC-enabled iPhone.
"Sooner or later Apple will put not just the NFC chip into phones, it will put the readers into next-gen iPads," said Bubley in a blog post. "I've already had an experience in a restaurant where the host came around with an iPad for people to enter their email addresses for the mailing list."
However, Gartner's Milanesi reckons NFC is likely to arrive in the iPhone before the iPad - so it won't be on the cards for iPad2. "Definitely Apple is interested in NFC - there's no question about that. With all the content that they sell and the opportunity that there is - absolutely... But I don't know if it makes sense to put it in the iPad first, not the iPhone," she told silicon.com.
Ovum's Dillon is of the same view. "If Apple are going to launch NFC services I think...
... they will definitely make the push for that on the iPhone5," he said.
So what is coming in iPad2? Dillon and Gartner's Milanesi reckon Apple will bring a front-facing camera to the iPad for its FaceTime video-calling feature. The pair also believe a faster processor is likely. "Now that everybody's on dual-core, having something that runs a little bit nippier would be nice," said Milanesi, adding that improved screen quality and more on-board storage and memory are also possible tweaks arriving on 2 March.
A second camera on the back of the iPad2, while useful for augmented reality apps and gaming, is a "nice-to-have but not a must-have", according to Gartner's Milanesi.
Thinner form factor
Milanesi points out that a slimmer iPad2 wouldn't necessarily comfortably accommodate a USB port, so it may be an either-or situation for that pair of rumours - with a more svelte iPad2 being the more likely update. "If you're trying to add a USB port I don't know how much slimmer you can make it," she said, adding: "There are ways you can do it but I don't know how critical [USB] is. At the end of the day the business model is that you get whatever you want to get through iTunes."
The iPad's screen has the most room for improvement of all its features, according to Ovum's Dillon - either by boosting the resolution or perhaps tweaking its aspect ratio to improve the video-viewing experience. However, he's not convinced the iPad2 will pack a Retina Display. "Looking at the iPhone with its very high-resolution Retina screen, that's something they could improve [on the iPad] but I don't know if the technology is available to them at the moment or if it's available to them at a cost where they can include it and keep the same price point," he said.
One disincentive for Apple to improve the iPad's screen is that it could put developers' noses out of joint by making extra work for them in updating their apps for any new resolution, added Gartner's Milanesi.
No Flash support
Flash support is almost certainly not on the cards for the iPad2, according to Ovum's Dillon - a view shared by Gartner's Milanesi, who reckons Apple will try and hold out as long as it can against Adobe's software. "They might sweat it out until HTML5 is pervasive enough and reliable enough to forget about Flash," she said.
However, she conceded that the absence of Flash on the iPad is more noticeable than on the iPhone. "You feel it more on the iPad than you do on the iPhone just because you end up doing more with the iPad," she told silicon.com, noting that many payment and ecommerce websites require Flash support to complete a transaction, and so remain off-limits to iPad users.
"But I don't think you would say 'I'm going to buy a Motorola Xoom at $800 because it's got Flash'," she added.
So no Flash support and no iPad nano either, according to both analysts. A smaller, seven-inch-screen iPad remains unlikely at this time, they said.
"It's too soon to come out with something smaller," said Milanesi. "You're going to end up fragmenting [the platform] from a developer perspective when what you really need to do now is work on your strength and continue to expand the ecosystem."
"The seven-inch [tablet] is no-man's land, it's neither one thing nor the other. It doesn't really give you the full experience you can get from the full-size iPad," added Dillon.
Gartner's Milanesi said: "You get to that point where there's only so much you can cram into that space. The iPod touch is the same size as an iPhone, do you really need a seven-inch between that and a 10-inch? How much do you actually gain?"
Both analysts believe there will be no change in price for the iPad2 - not least because Apple's slate is undercutting its high-end competitors, making it a competitive and compelling offering.
Ovum's Dillon noted that rival tablet makers are either building unbranded slates for sub-£150 or high price-tag propositions such as the Xoom. "There's nothing really in the middle of those two that competes with the lower-end iPad," he noted. "You normally assume any market Apple goes into, the Apple product is going to be the really top price, so trying to go in at a higher price than the iPad is ambitious at best."
What about the iPad3? What might the iPad2's follow-up offer - probably in 2012, if Apple's typical upgrade cycle keeps on turning.
4G network tech, higher screen resolution and NFC could be on the cards for the iPad2's sequel, reckons Dillon. "If they do decide to go down the NFC route with the iPhone, the reader technology in the next iPad could be something that complements their other products quite well," he said. "But who knows. They keep us guessing."
"iPad3? Give me a break! Let's enjoy the iPad2 first," Gartner's Milanesi said.