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Apple Embraces the New Tablet Reality

It’s clear that wireless carriers are in the business of selling data, and they have happily found that most owners of cell phones are interested in buying. After all, if you need a cellular connection for voice and text, you might as well take advantage of an all-in-one plan and get a data allowance as well.

However, when it comes to tablets, the wireless carriers have had a much tougher time of it. Tablets aren’t designed for voice and text, so a cellular connection isn’t a necessity. It’s really a question of whether tablet owners need cellular service to supplement their built-in Wi-Fi connection and so far most of them have said “No thanks.”

Part of the problem is of the carriers’ own making. Up until about 15 months ago, tablet data plans were prohibitively expensive, with a single tablet plan costing as much as $70 a month and requiring a two-year contract. The wireless carriers eventually pulled back from those exorbitant prices and now offer tablet data plans as part of a family share package without any long term commitment, but adoption rates have remained disappointingly low.

The other issue is that most consumers are still working out what they are supposed to do with a tablet. Sure, they can use them as e-readers and turn them on to catch the latest episode of Game of Thrones but that hardly makes them essential everyday devices. Besides, those activities are mostly undertaken at home, where there is access to home Wi-Fi networks, again making a cellular connection superfluous.

It was against this backdrop that Apple this week unveiled the latest versions of its best-selling iPad tablet. As expected, both the full-size iPad and the iPad mini got substantial makeovers, with the awkwardly named iPad with Retina Display being replaced by the much catchier iPad Air. While most commentators focused on the design modifications and the changes “under the hood,” Apple also made some moves that addressed both the cellular data issue and the more basic problem of What is a tablet for?

First, Apple added a dual antenna system, allowing for faster Wi-Fi connections, and made the iPad compatible with more LTE networks around the world, so users can make quick and easy connections wherever they go. It’s as if Apple acknowledges the ambivalence of tablet owners towards cellular data services and is saying “OK, we know you don’t really want cellular service but here’s a great way to hop on and hop off whenever it suits you.”

Imagine you own a tablet, which you occasionally use at both home and work but which always accompanies you when you travel. Now, Apple is practically encouraging you to rely on Wi-Fi and only sign up for cellular data service when you really need it. This take it or leave it approach is hardly what the wireless carriers hoped for when they made their huge bet on data, but it reflects the reality of how tablets are currently being used.

Next, Apple announced that it will now include its six most popular paid apps with every device it sells, for free! That’s iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, Pages, Numbers and Keynote on every iPhone, iPad, MacBook and iMac, completely free of charge. Apple’s not going to wait around for you to figure out what you can do with your iPad. Instead, it’s going to show you what’s possible and give you all the tools to make it happen!

The inclusion of free, built-in software is Apple’s way of telling us that the iPad has moved beyond Web browsing and game playing and is now a fully-fledged entertainment hub and workplace tool. It also illustrates how tablets remain an enduring and evolving threat to PCs.

This emergence of a Tablet 2.0 is classic Apple, fulfilling both an existing need and letting us know why we should buy something that we were happily doing without. While nearly 60 percent of all US adults now own a smartphone, the equivalent figure for tablets is just 35 percent. Apple is looking to close that gap and reignite a tablet market that sorely needs Apple to show it the way ahead.

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