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iPad 3 enough to keep Apple on top?

For all the hype surrounding Apple's iPad reveal on Wednesday, the long-term message from CEO Tim Cook's reveal is surprisingly murky.

Make no mistake: It's definitely the best iPad the world has ever seen, and arguably the best tablet on the market today. There are a whole lot of valid reasons why millions stopped what they were doing to watch Mr. Cook unveil it to the world, and a similarly large number of valid reasons why so many more have already pre-ordered their own or made plans to line up before the new device hits store shelves March 16th.

By the hardware specs alone, Apple's once again managed to leapfrog itself to the front of the market. The high-res, HD-capable retina screen renders incredibly crisp text — a boon for users stepping up from e-readers — and lifelike, vibrant photos and video. The quad-core processor speeds everything up and makes for a smoother, more consistent user experience.

Support for 4G/LTE wireless networking means significantly faster performance when you're outside of Wi-Fi coverage. An upgraded 5 megapixel camera gives the iPad decent if not spectacular picture-taking capability. Beyond the hardware, the App Store continues to lead all others, and Apple's recent purchase of Chomp — whose technology makes it easier to find stuff in online app stores — signals the company isn't resting on its app-based laurels, either.

iPad 3 update enough to continue dominance?

For all its inherent technical and marketing superiority, however, the new device simply doesn't go far enough to keep Apple at the top of the global corporate heap. Plenty of other Android-powered devices now ship with quad-core chips. Apple staggeringly left Siri, the innovative voice control interface first introduced on the iPhone 4S, out of the iPad mix, instead choosing to include a far simpler voice dictation feature. The rear-facing camera, while an improvement over the muddy, low-resolution shooter on the iPad 2, falls far short of the stellar unit on the iPhone 4S.

So it's an improvement, but not enough of an improvement to guarantee Apple's lock on the market it created with the original iPad two years ago. It's good enough to generate hype, lineups and breakout sales for the rest of the year, but not so good that it completely trumps the competition. Android 4 is finally mature enough to compete straight-on with the formerly untouchable Apple juggernaut. This iPad needed to be better than it is.

Perhaps it's unfair to put so much expectation on the new iPad's shoulders. Indeed, it's increasingly silly to assume that any one device — or family of devices in the case of Apple's so-called post-PC iOS platform — can ever have the power to grow the company's fortunes indefinitely. The recent runup in share price that's turned Apple into the planet's most valuable company, with a market capitalization of over $500 billion and counting, won't be sustained in the long-term by evolutionary product refreshes and carefully metered bumps to the spec sheet.

Investors have driven the price up largely based on expectations of an uninterrupted flow of segment-leading products and uniquely streamlined services like the App Store and iCloud that tie them all together. They won't stay invested forever if that flow begins to show signs of slackening.

Unfortunately for the number crunchers, the iPad announcement showed just enough signs of forward-looking weakness that some of them decided to bail in late afternoon and overnight trading. While this kind of reactionary behaviour has been seen before, the tendency is more worrisome now that more than just the products themselves are coming under investor scrutiny.

Clock is ticking for CEO Tim Cook

Mr. Cook himself is on trial here, and while his stay-the-course strategy will continue to fuel the company in the near-term, he's held back on bolder moves — like moving the company into the television industry — that will lessen Apple's reliance on its ever-growing iOS universe and reinforce the company's legacy of both busting existing segments and being unafraid to cannibalize existing product lines as it pushes into new markets.

This week's reveal could have been about far more than a slightly better tablet. It could have been the revolution the market's been looking for, the move by Mr. Cook to break with the script left for him by Mr. Jobs as he transitions to a script written in his own handwriting.

Perhaps it's too soon for Mr. Cook to make his move. Perhaps there are a few more straight-up, Steve-inspired updates in the product pipeline before he, his company, his investors and the rest of us are ready for Apple to push into television and other more radical directions. But it's increasingly clear that the game of adding enough features to maintain measured levels of competitiveness and keep customers buzzing — and buying — won't work forever. Mr. Cook needs to pull a far more radical trigger. And soon.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. carmilevy@yahoo.ca

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