Apple plays hardball with iPad mini reveal

Ryan Faas
23 October, 2012
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In staging an Apple event on Wednesday morning, Australian time, to unveil the long-awaited iPad Mini (and, perhaps, updated iMacs and MacBook Airs), Apple is poised to steal a lot of Microsoft’s thunder later in the week. On Friday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will release Windows 8 to the masses and launch Microsoft’s first tablet, the Surface with Windows RT.

The Surface and similar tablets designed and manufactured by Microsoft’s OEM partners—including some tablet/laptop hybrids—are supposed to represent the company’s response to the iPad. All are designed to be lightweight and portable, offer extended battery life and will run the new Windows RT—a version of Windows 8 designed for ARM-based devices that includes a touch-enabled, non-commercial version of Office 2013. The devices will attempt to compete with the iPad on look and price and offer a range of features that appeal to consumers and business users alike: higher storage capacity, standard USB ports and expandable storage via SD cards.

Microsoft’s event should be a shot across Apple’s bow that says Microsoft can deliver a tablet experience as good as, if not better than, Apple’s iPad. Microsoft has spent months developing and planning for the launch to ensure its message is loud and clear.

Another Apple frenzy

There’s just one problem. Apple, which can create a media frenzy by inviting a select group of technology journalists to an event without even indicating what it will say, has done just that right before the Windows 8 launch. It will almost certainly be an event where Apple will wow the audience with news about how it is expanding its tablet lineup to include new form factors with lower price tags. Apple could even update its current full-size iPad lineup.

If nothing else, Apple will be able to preemptively remind everyone that it defined the tablet market with the original iPad in 2010, that it has the most robust app ecosystem in the world, and that Microsoft is more than two and half years late to the party. That’s a pretty powerful message, and one that the mere existence of an Apple iPad Mini delivers without anyone saying anything about Microsoft, Windows 8 or the Surface at all.

Apple’s playing hardball, something it’s been doing more of lately.

After Steve Jobs died a year ago, there was a constant buzz about what would happen at Apple—and to Apple. For months, each day brought new headlines questioning whether or not CEO Tim Cook was up to the task of running Apple. Each new product announcement, every response that Apple made to labour and environmental critics, and missteps like the iOS 6 Maps fiasco were fresh fodder for the “Steve would have…” musings by media pundits.

Most of those who weighed in assumed that Jobs would have done a better job handling the event or crisis du jour. But by making that assumption, critics missed an important consideration: Maybe Cook’s leadership is actually better for Apple.

Cook may not be the firebrand that Jobs was, but it has become very clear over the past few months that Apple under his leadership remains a force to be reckoned with.

The timing of the iPad Mini announcement—rumoured to have been delayed by manufacturing issues but possibly pushed back to control this week’s tablet narrative — sends a simple message to the Apple’s competitors. That message: We are the most successful technology company in the world, we have more resources than you, and we’re prepared to bring anything to the table to compete. You are playing on our turf now.

An invigorated Apple

That’s a far cry from the Apple of 10 years ago, the one Jobs rescued from ruin and that had only just unveiled the iPod. It’s even a far cry from the Apple of five years ago, when it had just released an iPhone that was almost laughable due to limitations like no third-party apps and no 3G connectivity. In fact, the Apple of today has something of the swagger of the company that brazenly welcomed IBM to the PC market more than three decades ago.

The timing of this week’s iPad Mini event is just one way in which Apple is using all of its resources to compete.

Dropping Google Maps

Dropping Google Maps, which resulted in the work-in-progress Siri-integrated Maps app in iOS 6, was another great example of this new attitude as well as an important strategic move. Google wasn’t providing features that Apple needed to compete—turn-by-turn navigation being the biggest example. That meant Google was using its mapping technology to give itself a real edge over Apple in the mobile landscape.

Beyond that, every time an iOS device owner used location services and map data—whether or not that use was in the Maps app itself—he or she was delivering a wealth of personal and geographic information to Google. Where is the user? What cell towers and Wi-Fi networks are nearby? What generation iPhone and what version of iOS is he or she using? What is he or she looking for—restaurants, bars, hotels, libraries, offices, shoe stores? What route does the user prefer to get someplace? That’s invaluable data for Google to apply to improving its mapping systems, but it’s also a ton of demographic data—the type of information that is at the heart of Google’s advertising business.

That’s information over which Apple had little control. More importantly, it’s information that Apple can now use to grow its own mapping and navigation systems, speech recognition technologies, iAd business and marketing plans.

In short, the deal gave Google significant advantages and held Apple back. Kicking Google to the curb and accepting the potential fallout was a ballsy but necessary move, even if it meant taking jabs over its Maps app.

Fighting Android

Of course, if we’re going to talk about Apple playing hardball with Google, we have to note the range of patent suits Apple has brought around the world to fight Android.

There’s the oft-quoted passage in Walter Isaccson’s biography of Jobs where Jobs says that he’s willing to “go thermonuclear” to stop Android. For him, Android represented a personal betrayal of trust and one that tugged at the psychic wound inflicted by Microsoft’s development of Windows. It was a battle that Jobs would almost certainly press to the highest courts in every possible country were he still alive.

Apple hasn’t backed down from that fight under Cook’s leadership, but it hasn’t made the victory against Samsung this summer personal, either. The company’s responses have been well thought out, calmly delivered statements about how Apple led the way with certain technologies or concepts and incurred R&D costs that competitors didn’t have to pay.

The Apple message is clear: It will use all of the resources at its disposal to compete. In this case, one of those resources is the U.S. patent system and the sheer volume of patents that Apple owns. You can argue about whether the patent system in the U.S. is broken or whether Apple should have been granted some patents. But the fact is that Apple has the patents and will use them. Doing anything less would put Apple at a strategic disadvantage.

The idea of using every strategic advantage even applies to recent reports that Apple has removed Samsung from the design process of the A-series chips that power iOS devices, relegating its mobile device competitor to simply manufacturing the chips and nothing more.

Ultimately, Cook’s leadership at Apple so far appears to be a calculated effort to retain the company’s prominence in the technology sector, the business world and on the international stage. That’s different than Jobs, who offered a more passionate style of leadership. But Cook’s take is equally successful and show how he is very adept at identifying and using each strategic advantage possible. That results is a more rational and reasoned company, one that clearly recognises its power and potential and will use it effectively.

And that confidence will be very much on display this week.

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