iPad 3: Faster, Better, Smarter, But Also A Bit Too Familiar

The iPad 3 will be huge. But Apple’s UI is remaining static even as competitors come on quickly.

Today, Tim Cook walked onto the stage in San Francisco and cooly declared the end of the PC era, ushered in by the iPhone and iPad. And then, after a bit of crowing about Apple’s remarkable sales on all fronts and announcing that Siri would now speak German, French, and Japanese, he unveiled the new iPad 3.

The tech heads among you will want to know specs, and my colleague Kit Eaton is all over them. Basically, the thing has a super high-def "retina" display, 4G, a better camera, and voice dictation. But there were some subtle changes to the design—so subtle that you probably wouldn’t notice, and you certainly can’t see them in the pictures here.

One crucial detail remains: The curving lip of the thing, which is perhaps the one detail that will never leave, aside from the huge screen. That’s simply because it allows you to pick it up off a table with one hand. (Why isn’t there a curving lip on the iPhone 4? Because it’s small enough that with one hand, you can lift it by gripping two opposing edges with your finger and thumb.)

But as I’ve pointed out before, the footprint of actual industrial design has rapidly shrunk, so that there really isn’t that much you can design with the case of the iPad. Plus, the iPad is approaching the physical dimensions where it can’t get much thinner without being actually unergonomic. All of which still means Apple is less and less defined by the actual feel of the objects themselves than the "feel" of how those pixels move after you touch the screen.

In that respect, iPad 3 doesn’t depart much from it’s predecessor, which is probably the biggest disappointment. Apple’s UI’s remain clean and relatively good—but they’re not putting distance between competitors such as Microsoft, whose new Windows 8 OS is quite impressive. They also remain wedded to silly graphic flourishes such as the wooden bookcase in iBooks and severely linear menu hierarchy. One small exception to this lack of progress is the new iPhoto for iPad, which has all sorts of clever little details to it, such as tapping on an area of a photo to adjust its exposure and color, and a new geo-tagging tool that let’s place a picture on a map. Yet the OS overall is remaining fairly static. Rumors of haptic feedback proved not to be true.

Perhaps that’s simply because Apple is becoming less of a maker of things—such as computers and UI’s—and more of a container of other people’s creations. In other words, they’re less concerned with the UI than filling it with apps designed by others. As that burden of being a store rather than just a product grows, the locus of innovation moves.

But Apple has an unprecedented ability and market standing which allows it to lead the way in how people use their technology. They also have a massive install-base that keeps them grounded. The question is: Which will ultimately determine how they develop products in the future?

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  • Jaime

    Indeed, UI evolution (if there's any) is not responding at all to the radical changes in the system, and I'm talking about iCloud. And even if Apple is on the way to become only a "container", some of the most used applications in our devices are those developed by the company. Music app in iOS 5 is everything but smooth and seamless, also the calendar, notes and the newsstand seem to be getting more real-looking just as they're becoming less useful.

  • phuong

    Many blogs/forums/techsite/haters(non Apple users) have said "New iPad" have not really pushed the envelope or enough changes from the ipad2 compare to the competitions, however i see it the other way. They invented this market so why do they have to follow the others, Apple work in a idiosyncratic way as any Apple users would already be aware of. Think of the Porsche iconic 911, the layout of the engine in the rear is not ideal making it rear heavy but its a trademark that Porsche has kept and cherished by purist. Sharks and Crocs haven't really changed cos they don't need to, that is how i see Apple products...

  • B Dubs

    No doubt it is a great product, but people are tired of Apple's constant updates that make people think that the perfectly good products they already own are outdated. It stinks of conspicuous consumption, something American's need to get over quick!

  • johnlotz

    How is Apple MAKING people think they need the latest edition of their devices? They update the devices then market it and people buy it. They (Apple) aren't saying you need the newest thing (ipad, iphone,etc) and they surely aren't giving any sort of financial incentive to getting the newest product. 

  • GP

    I don't really agree.  Watch people use the iPad.  They adore how simple and linear the UI is.  That is the brilliance of Apple products.  The mental burden on the user is tiny.  For the vast majority this is a big deal.  For the bloggers who want to see funky UI changes, this is being static.  I agree they need to keep innovating, but I don't believe they need to fundamentally alter the simplicity of the UI.  BMW's don't change a lot from year to year, but they get better almost every update.  Apple is going that way.

  • Chris Reich

    If Apple had announced that some of that cash horde of theirs was being used to build a US manufacturing plant, I'd be thrilled. I would actually LIKE Apple if they would produce something in the US, with American labor. I'd buy a few IPads if they would make them here.

    Too bad. They could do it. They can afford it.

    Chris Reich 

  • phuong

    If you have read Steve Jobs book, reality dictate that its impossible. They employed over 700,000 employees (often hiring 10,000 staff within a week notice working 24hr shifts) in factories and they needed thousands of engineers within a short period which the US can't procure... If the US or western countries workers accept a wage of $2 and hour and live in dorm of 5 or 6 ppl per room and sacrificing first world union demand and social security than it might be possible but real world say no.
    You can either be a market(country) or consumer or producer(china) but not both...

  • Greg Furry

    The new iPad has iOS 5.1 now. That will change soon when Apple comes out with iOS6 sometime later in the year. iOS 5.1 (released yesterday) works on ALL current iPads. How many Android devices work with the latest version? Or even the version before that? 

  • Greg

    Maybe this is why they are simply calling it the New iPad instead of iPad 3. Its just a hardware update, a tweak, iPad2S so to speak. But with all the hype that surrounds anything iPad or iPhone related, any update is instantly blow out of proportion. Which is followed by disappointment.

    Also who said anything about a UI change? I wasn't expecting any change to the UI until ISO6 comes out.

  • Cameron

    As Jony Ive says it's very easy to be different, but difficult to be better. Change for change's sake is frivolous. 

    It is true, there are many flavors of good usability, and Metro feels pretty fresh. I myself am considering a Lumia 800/900. But, clearly Apple would be unwise to radically revamp what has proven so usable and is already familiar to literally billions of people. It takes restraint and wisdom to do that, especially with the leverage they have. I applaud them for it.

  • atimoshenko

    A quick note on skeuomorphism.

    A good UI is one that gracefully fades into the background instead of jumping out and shouting "look at me". A good UI takes not only its own tasks and capabilities into account, but also the contexts in which it will be used.

    A good UI, therefore, takes some superfluous "flourishes" (as you say) from its surroundings in order to be mindful about not interrupting their flow.

    Contrast with Metro – very good as a design study, perhaps to be put, contextless against a white background in a museum, but also very picky about where it can work without interrupting and disrupting the flow of its surroundings.

  • neil21

    Do the profit proportions back up your "less a maker of things" argument? I thought most of apple's profits still came from hardware sales. Is the trend towards app-store (taking into account data centre costs I suppose)?

  • Amanda Tronchin

    the "new ipad" is not worth the price tag since it has so few new features...also, it will take time before developers will completely take advantage of the the quad-core graphics card (not a quad core cpu processor) that the "new ipad" is sporting. this is just more of the same and if you can justify paying for more of the same then go right ahead....

  • EVFanatic

    For those of us with the original iPad, this is a tremendous set of improvements. And, for all those who have yet to buy an iPad, they will get way more capability than I did in 2010--and for the same price.  So, this may be mainly a 'resolutionary' improvement, but a significant one nonetheless.

  • johnlotz

    What are "features" to you? When you buy a new computer what "new features" are you looking for compared to the old computers? This new iPad has a much better screen, faster CPU and more memory, better camera, several different radios, etc, etc. What would it take for you to consider this iPad worth the price tag? And what does it matter that some developers apps aren't designed (yet) to take advantage of increased power of the newest iPad? They will be eventually. 

  • Dahlia Pham

    Why modify a design that's probably at its pinnacle? We're so conditioned to get a new design with every new model, people often don't stop and think that making a new well-designed product probably takes a few years to work on. It certainly was the case for the original iPod, and look how many years it took until we got the iPod Touch/iPhone format.

    Give Apple a few years, assuming they're still able to put out stellar products, I'm sure they can amaze us again.

    Btw, it's just "iPad" there is no "3". Thought you should know. 

  • Adam Beere

    Completely agree with you, I think attitudes now think that if you're not changing, you're not innovating.

  • johnlotz

    Darn right it will. But critics and "analysts" will keep telling you how disappointing it is or what you should buy instead.