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Apple iPad 2 is here and tablet rivals need to hit the drawing board

Apple's magnetic iPad 2 cover flops back out way or rolls up inan easel for typing or viewing.

Apple's magnetic iPad 2 cover flops back and out of the way, or rolls up into an easel for typing or viewing.

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Updated: July 14, 2011 12:15AM

If one of your company’s goals for 2011 was to introduce a tablet to complete with the iPad, you can expect to struggle.

The second most powerful evidence of this happened just a minute ago, as I pulled out my iPad and keyboard here in my San Francisco hotel lobby to write this very same column.

“Looks like you’re going to have to buy a new one of those,” said an electrician as he passed by me on the way to his truck. “The new one’s coming out on the 11th.”

I didn’t tell him that I had attended the Apple iPad 2 press event that morning. No, sometime in the previous hour or two, this random stranger had heard about the new version of the iPad ... and he remembered the ship date. That’s how successful Apple’s been. Consumers aren’t just aware of the iPad ... they’re actually excited about it.

And if you are indeed one of those makers of an upcoming competing tablet, Apple used their time at the Yerba Buena Center to deliver a clear message to you: just go home. From nearly the moment that Steve Jobs took the stage to the end, he seemed to be saying “We’d be concerned about competition if anybody were actually prepared to compete with us.”

What he actually said was “We stand a pretty good chance of being competitive in this market.” But how else can I interpret his declaration of 2011 as “the year of the copycats,” amid a sea of logos of Android tablet makers?

Or the slide boasting 65,000 iPad-tuned apps, immediately followed by another one showing the mere 100 tablet apps available for Android? Or the stat that Apple has paid out two billion dollars in revenue to iOS developers; that the iTunes Store had 200,000,000 individual users with credit cards on file; that Random House had begun offering their digital catalogue in the iBookstore (they were the last holdout among the heavyweights); or that Apple sold 15 million iPads in just three-quarters of 2010 and now makes the majority of its money off of the iPad and other “post-PC devices”?

Two competitors got specific shout-outs. The Samsung Galaxy Tab did indeed sell so well that it sold out soon after its release, but Jobs attributed that to short supply. As for the Motorola Xoom (a new tablet that I rather liked), Steve took the time to point out that it was more expensive than all but one of the iPad’s six configurations.

Even when Apple demonstrated two new iPad apps that they’d built in-house, the clear message to consumers was “Don’t even think of buying a tablet that can’t do anything this slick.” Indeed, even during my fifteen minutes with the iPad edition of Apple’s iMovie video editor, I was impressed. I hate editing video, but this app intuitively felt better and easier than even the desktop edition of iMovie. GarageBand turns the iPad into an 8-track recording and editing studio, complete with digital versions of all of the usual rock instruments. It should be responsible for the release of a lot of awful, awful music in the coming year; I struggle to think of another tool that makes it so easy to play, record, and produce music.

Oh, right: the actual iPad 2. Its specs are less dramatic than its presence. All of the rumors fell into place: front and rear cameras; a faster, dual-core processor (2x faster, says Apple) and faster graphics (9x); and a gyroscope. This last thing, along with a new $39 accessory that mirrors everything the iPad 2 does to any TV with HDMI, will turn the iPad 2 into one hell of a home gaming platform.

That’s great. The processor, particularly, makes a huge impact. I activated the Photo Booth app and discovered that the iPad 2 was peppy enough to maintain nine different live video previews, each applying a different filter or warping effect, and update them all in real time at full video frame rate.

But you kind of have to hold the iPad 2 to really get the redesign. It’s thinner by a third, plus its edges taper to a thin line of metal. It’s almost inconceivable that this thing you’re holding is a multicore tablet computer. The Xoom tablet is trim, light, and very pretty ... but when you place it next to the iPad 2, it looks as though it was designed and built by angry Soviet prison labor instead of by Motorola.

For crimeny’s sake ... even when Apple manufactures something as basic as an iPad cover, they have to showboat. The iPad 2 actually has magnets inside its case that will grab and secure a stylish sheet of flexible leather or polyurethane attached to a set of embedded metal hinges. Open the cover — which flips invisibly behind the iPad — and the iPad automatically wakes. Flip it closed, and it goes to sleep.

(During my hands-on time, I quickly flipped the edge open and closed. In that fraction of a second, the screen woke and un-woke. Nice.)

More magnets in the cover allow you to roll it into a solid typing or viewing easel. Apple’s covers are $39 and $69, but the iPad 2’s built-in magnets and sensors can be exploited by any third-party designer.

Apple’s iPad 2 rollout was such an aggressive — and successful — demonstration of dominance that I wonder if there will be a follow-up effect on the upcoming tablet marketplace. Many manufacturers were poised at the starting line in the weeks before the iPad 2’s original announcement. The dazzling nature of the iPad, plus its $499 price tag, delayed the release of the first true iPad-class device until just a couple of weeks ago.

Now, all of these companies have the iPad 2 to deal with. And oh, goatspit: the price of every iPad 2 is the same as its predecessor ... including the $499 16 gig WiFi-only model. I wouldn’t be shocked if some high-profile manufacturers take full advantage of the fact that they never actually promised a ship date for their Android tablets.

The hotel electrician was correct: the iPad 2 will ship on March 11, and will be available in both black and white. The 3G model will be available with wireless coverage from Verizon and AT&T.

A real review will have to wait until I have one in-hand. Until then, Apple seems to be successfully pursuing the same strategy that works in any streetfight: keep knocking your opponent’s feet out from under him just when he’s about to get up. It doesn’t hurt that they also seem to be the only tablet manufacturer that diligently thinks their designs through from start to finish.

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