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?