With the 2012 iPad, Apple has mostly done as little as it needs to do, offering the most subtle of evolutionary updates imaginable, but for one key and important difference: This new iPad offers four times the screen resolution of its predecessor, the iPad 2. And that one feature alone presents a very tricky problem indeed for Windows 8 and the many hardware makers that will sell competing devices based on Microsoft's new platform.
When the iPad was first announced in early 2010, I derided it as a giant iPod touch, a statement that's absolutely true but, in hindsight, misses the point completely . That is, yes, the iPad is very much a larger version of an existing device and a fairly bald-faced attempt to further extend Apple's online services and ecosystem domination. But in typical Apple form, it was this smallest of changes--making a bigger iPod--that made all the difference in the world.
People like to smugly look back on critics of the original iPad as flat-earthers, but come on, no one really saw this coming. No one credible anyway. The genius of the iPad, as it turns out, is a combination of familiarity--its iOS interface was barely changed at all to accommodate the larger screen size--and, yes, that bigger screen. You could hand someone an iPod touch, for example, and tell them to check their email, browse the web, use Facebook and other apps, and play some games. And they would, maybe. But hand a person the larger screen iPad with the same set of capabilities and suddenly it's not just doable, it's a superior experience.
And by superior, I mean, not just compared to the iPod/iPhone, but to a PC or Mac as well. For the vast majority of people, the iPad screen is just big enough, the device just thin and light enough, and the battery life so over-the-top wonderful, that the sum of the iPad, if you will, vastly outweighs the parts. From a mile away, this thing seems uninspiring. Use it, however, and none of that matters. For most people--normal people, consumers, the average Joe, whatever--the iPad is absolutely all the "computer" they need. It's a smaller, lighter, simpler, more portable, and, yes, "funner" PC than any PC on earth.
This, of course, is the problem. From Microsoft's perspective.
One can only imagine the collective deer in the headlamps look that pervaded the Microsoft campus in early 2010, and certainly this well-employed software giant deserves a bit more criticism for not seeing this computing future before, say, the average industry onlooker. But no matter: Give Microsoft some credit for responding to the threat in what can only be described, again in hindsight, as revolutionary speed. Microsoft, again, would not be first to market with a technology. But it remains to be seen whether Apple, Microsoft, or some other company, will dominate this future.
(People seem to routinely misunderstand my take on this and, more alarmingly, assume I'm somehow blindly rooting for Microsoft. To repeat what I've been saying for years, I believe that the future of general purpose computing will not be dominated by one company, as Microsoft dominated the traditional PC market. I think that Windows, iOS, and Android will roughly split this market and that any of these will ultimately be a safe choice for consumers.)
The third generation iPad, which drops the numbering scheme of previous Apple devices, looks and is basically identical to its predecessor from a form factor perspective. It's available in the same two colors (black or white), in the same configurations, and with the same prices as before. Competitively, then, the new iPad doesn't seem to really raise the bar much over its predecessor in terms of comparing it with a coming generation of Windows 8-based devices. But there are some key aspects to this device that absolutely make it superior to Windows 8.
The first and most important is that retina display.
As a backgrounder, Apple describes its high DPI (dots per inch) displays as "retina displays," a great attempt by the company to put a plain English description on a very technical aspect of the product. Put simply, a retina display, or a high DPI display as the rest of the world calls it, packs so many pixels in each square inch of its screen that the individual pixels are literally indistinguishable to the human eye.
The first retina display debuted in the iPhone 4 in 2010 and was carried over unchanged in the iPhone 4S in late 2011. Thanks to the tiny 3.5-inch, 960 x 640 screens on these devices, the iPhone 4/4S packs an amazing 326 pixels per inch , well over the 200 PPI rating required to achieve "high DPI" status.
The new iPad's screen isn't as pixel-packed as that device, however. But at 2048 x 1536 resolution, four times the pedestrian 1024 x 768 achieved by the iPad 1 and 2, the new iPad provides 264 PPI/DPI, still well over the 200 DPI mark, and deserving of the retina moniker.
Because the iOS display doesn't scale in any way, however, this additional graphical clarity will offer only modest improvements for those navigating around this system's now-ancient-feeling home screens. You'll see the biggest improvements in onscreen reading, where the text is super-crisp and devoid of fuzziness, in new games and apps, and in video, where 1080p playback is now possible. (Apple bumped up the new iPad's processing and graphics power specifically to handle the driving of this massively pixel-packed display.)
How does this compare to Windows?
There's nothing stopping PC and device makers from shipping Windows 8-based devices with high-DPI displays. In fact, Microsoft has been pushing high DPI since the 2003 Longhorn unveiling, and those with good memories will remember the demonstrations of possible resolution-independent apps like Calculator being stretched on the fly to accommodate high-DPI displays.
Of course, that never happened, and Windows is still very much bitmapped today. And anyone who has played with the display settings in Windows, where you can bump up onscreen elements by factors of 125 and 150 percent, typically, knows the results are unsatisfactory. This will be true of Windows 8 as well.
Worthless: You ever mess with this interface? It's a waste of time.
In fact, Microsoft talked about high DPI in Windows 8 at BUILD last September. You can find a short mention of this on the MSDN web site and on Long Zheng's I Started Something. Apple fans can casually ignore that this all happened before the new iPad was announced, but this documentation notes specifically that Microsoft expects to see 2560x1440 slates. It's going to happen.
And while the desktop won't look great on such devices, this issue will be less pronounced in the Metro-environment which, like Silverlight, isn't truly resolution independent but does offer much better scaling (and auto-layout capabilities) than a simple bitmapped display. Metro may not make sense on a 27-inch display. But it will perform well on a high-DPI tablet display. Again, such devices are coming, and based on the note on Microsoft's web site, could offer displays that pack even more pixels than the new iPad.
That said, the new iPad's retina display must be described as this device's single biggest technical advantage over Windows 8, however, simply because it is a feature of every single new iPad that will be sold this year and going forward, and all of the app makers who support this system will be targeting this new resolution. On Windows 8, meanwhile, developers are targeting 1366 x 768 displays and, if they're adventurous, this system's unique side-by-side apps mode. Microsoft will tell you that 1366 x 768 is a very common resolution today, and I'm sure they're right. But Apple is shooting for the future, as always. They win this round, and handily.
There are other areas where the iPad eeks ahead. The battery life on these devices--9 to 10 hours by all accounts, though I haven't had a chance to test that yet--is simply amazing, and far better than most portable Windows machines today. Will WOA-type Windows 8 tablets come close to this figure? I hope so, but I doubt it.
The iPad is also far simpler than Windows, and it's hard to imagine anyone arguing otherwise. If you're looking for email, web, Facebook, and other basic tasks and don't spend a lot of time typing, the iPad is almost a no-brainer, or at least it would be if the price was any cheaper.
Windows 8 comes out ahead in a few areas, even at this early, pre-release time. I do feel that there is a huge user base of people who want an iPad-type device but want it to run Windows, and that WOA and x86 tablets will make this people very happy. Windows devices will offer far more choice than iPads, with more device sizes, form factors, and price ranges. As with PC vs. Mac, the Windows 8 devices will be marked by variety, while Apple's products offer just the same, bland dullness.
Windows 8 devices will be more versatile than iPads, with docking bases for tablets that will turn them into true desktop computers with huge screens, external speakers, keyboards, mice, and other peripherals. There will be hybrid laptops that do double duty depending on your needs, and all of these machines can run powerful desktop applications, not just the Playskool stuff we see on iPads and in Metro.
Businesses will prefer Windows 8 devices by a wide margin, just as they prefer Windows PCs over Macs today, and for exactly the same reasons. While we can broadly manage most devices, including iPads, with Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) today, no device on earth is as highly managed as a PC. And Windows 8 devices will be PCs, something that IT admins and IT pros understand. Windows 8 will destroy the iPad in the enterprise. There won't be any contest at all.
In some areas, of course, it's a toss-up. The iPad offers simply cellular access in some models and, with the new version, 4G and even LTE as well. Windows devices will offer this too, just as do Windows PCs today. Where iPad users can utilize iCloud to sync all their content and settings, Windows 8 users will use similar features that are attached to their Microsoft accounts. (And, heck, if you're attached to iTunes and iCloud, go nuts: That all works in Windows too.) iPad users use AirPlay to project the iPad screen to an HDTV; Windows 8 users have play to and the built-in projection tools. It's all very similar.
Ultimately, what we're left with is the same thing I've been saying all along: Windows 8 will earn its spot at the tablet next to the new iPad. Apple's device is elegant, beautiful, and simple, and it offers a superior screen with amazing detail and compatibility with the richest ecosystem in the mobile world. But Windows 8 will offer more choice, lower prices, and better business capabilities in particular.
The new iPad, of course, is available today. And you know what? It's not half bad at all.