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Apple unveils revamped iPads, but pressure grows for next big thing

AFP-JIJI

Apple revved up its iPad line on Tuesday as it moved to fend off rivals that have eroded its dominance in the sizzling tablet market.

A slimmer version of its top-selling full-size tablet computer, dubbed the iPad Air, was announced along with a revamped iPad Mini with an improved high-definition display.

Apple shares fell as investors reacted to a lack of fresh products, but some analysts remained upbeat after the U.S. tech giant unveiled upgrades to its tablets, notebooks and desktop computers along with free software to sweeten the deal.

“I think it is going to be a really strong holiday for Apple,” Gartner analyst Van Baker said after spending some hands-on time with the California company’s newest devices.

“The highlight of the day is the breadth of Apple’s announcement; this is apps, tablets, MacBooks, Mac Pro, software. . . . It is very wide-ranging.”

The new iPad Air is 43 percent thinner than the version it replaces, weighs just 450 grams, and is “screaming fast,” Apple Vice President Phil Schiller said at the unveiling in San Francisco.

The upgraded iPad Mini has a high-definition “retina” display along with faster computing power and graphics.

Both new iPads feature the Apple-designed A7 chip with 64-bit “desktop-class architecture,” Apple said.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said he was not troubled by competition in the tablet space.

“Everybody seems to be making a tablet,” he told the audience. “Even some of the doubters are making them.”

But he said that notwithstanding sales figures, “iPad is used more than any of the rest, and not just a little more, a lot more.”

The iPad “is used over four times more than all of those other tablets put together, and this is what is important to us. People use it, and what is even more important to us, is people love it,” he said.

The two new iPads will be sold alongside the existing versions, starting Nov. 1 in more than 40 markets around the world.

The iPad Air will start at $499 and the new Mini version at $399 for U.S. customers. Apple will cut the prices of the older iPad versions.

But as Apple polishes its culture-changing gadgets to gleam during the holiday shopping season, pressure is growing for it to deliver the next big thing.

The California tech giant known for dazzling innovation orchestrated by late legendary co-founder Steve Jobs has rolled out impressive improvements to its iPhones, iPads and Macintosh computers since Cook took over as chief in 2011.

While Apple shattered sales records with its recently released iPhone 5 and was expected to see buyers around the world snap up new iPad Air and iPad Mini tablets hitting the market next month, the company was increasingly expected to rock the world with something transformational.

“Sooner or later they are going to have to bring out a new category of devices that nobody knew they needed until Apple announced it, and they are going to have to sell millions of them,” said Gartner analyst Van Baker.

“We are still waiting for that.”

Baker and other analysts note that while people may be eager for Apple to wow them anew, it is premature to start thinking the pace of innovation at the company is off kilter.

Jobs introduced the iPhone about five years after Apple launched the iPod, and it was another three years before the iPad debuted in early 2010.

“Apple is still within the window of opportunity to bring something that is a completely new category,” Baker said.

“If they haven’t done it by the end of next year, then there will be reason for people to be a little more nervous.”

For now, what Apple is missing is the mastery Jobs had of managing expectations, referred to as his “reality distortion field,” in a way that left the public impressed with whatever it introduced.

“Apple is good at inventing new products and at maximizing profitability of its product range over time through software innovations and clever marketing,” Forrester analyst Thomas Husson said in a blog post after Apple ramped up its iPad line on Tuesday.

“Yes, at some point, the company will need to disrupt a new market once again, but today’s announcement is really about making sure it maintains the premium brand experience for the holiday season when competition is heating up.”

Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, believes that Apple has set the foundation for major product innovation with significant developments in chips powering its mobile devices and the software they run.

Apple hasn’t lost its innovative mojo, it has infused its array of products with powerful 64-bit processors and compatible software, opening the door to formidable new-generation gadgets whether they be wearable computers or something else entirely, he said.

“This year Apple was building the technology foundation to deliver what I would consider their next big thing, whether it is an iWatch, a new television platform or whatever,” Bajarin added.

“I think next year will be their big year for innovation.”

Under-the-hood innovations made by Apple this year have set the stage for mobile devices that pack computing power on par with those of desktop machines.

Spending a couple of years incrementally improving popular Apple products and building a springboard for the “next big thing” has been Apple’s style for quite some time, according to the analyst.

“In each of those cases when Steve (Jobs) had these iterative periods they were building new foundations of innovative technologies,” Bajarin said.

“They have used the last two years to lay the next groundwork; 2014 is going to be their next big year.”