Apple aims to stay atop tablet mountain

Even priced at $329, the iPad Mini will be a success

When I suggested earlier this week that Apple was playing hardball by scheduling Tuesday's iPad Mini announcement so close to Microsoft's Windows 8/RT and Surface tablet launch, I didn't think Apple would play as hard as it did. The big reveal, the first Apple event streamed live over the Internet in two years and the first to be streamed directly into living rooms via Apple TV, showed Apple is still the dominant player in the tablet market.

And it obviously plans to keep it that way.

Apple iPad Mini
Apple announced its smaller iPad, the iPad Mini, with a 7.9-in screen. (Image: Apple)

Apple CEO Tim Cook seemed delighted to announce that Apple has already sold more than 100 million iPads, ticking off all the reasons people love them and pointing out that 94% of Fortune 500 companies are now testing or deploying iPads. It was a clear message to Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Amazon, and pretty much everyone else that Apple still leads the product category it defined nearly three years ago.

The unveiling of the iPad Mini was almost a forgone conclusion -- Phil Schiller even joked about that when introducing an updated Apple's Mac mini. What had been seen as a possible, but unlikely, announcement was a refresh to the existing 10-inch iPad, which arrived only last March. But Schiller did, indeed, announce such update, touting the iPad's new A6X processor and the move to a Lightening connector like that used in the new iPhone 5.

The new fourth-generation iPad is definitely a step up from its predecessor. Its A6X processor delivers up to twice the CPU and graphics performance of the model it replaces. And, like the iPhone 5 and the new iPad Mini, it also supports a broader range of LTE networks -- a key addition for users outside North America. Even with the arrival of this unexpected newcomer, Apple still sells the older iPad 2 as a $399 entry-level, full sized iPad -- albeit one without a retina display.

While the announcement of a new full-sized iPad was a surprise -- one greeted with decidedly mixed emotions by those who had already invested in a new iPad in recent months -- it was the iPad Mini that was the main event.

The diminutive form factor of the iPad Mini places it in competition with a range of Android-based devices, including Amazon's Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD; Barnes & Noble's Nook tablets; Google's Nexus 7; and Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Galaxy Tab 2 tablets.

Most of those tablets sell for $199 or less, which makes the $329 price for basic iPad Mini stick out like a sore thumb. Samsung Galaxy Tab models can even be found for free when paired with a two-year contract with a mobile carrier.

The pricing reflects Apple's standard approach to many products -- framing it as a premium device that comes with best-in-class hardware. Apple is not a company that competes at the entry level of any product it sells, and it looks like the company isn't about to change its approach anytime soon.

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