The iPad Big Picture

There was a meta-message in today’s Apple event, not about the iPad in particular, but rather about Apple as a whole. Jobs’s brief preamble included a bit of extra emphasis on the fact that the Apple now generates over $50 billion per year in revenue. (Apple also emphasized this $50 billion revenue thing in their PR two days ago announcing their Q1 2010 financial results.) He also said that when you consider MacBooks as “mobile” devices, Apple generates more revenue from mobile hardware than any other company in the world; the three competitors he singled out were Sony, Samsung, and Nokia. The adjective he used was “bigger”.

Lastly, there’s the fact that the iPad is using a new CPU designed and made by Apple itself: the Apple A4. This is a huge deal. I got about 20 blessed minutes of time using the iPad demo units Apple had at the event today, and if I had to sum up the device with one word, that word would be “fast”.

It is fast, fast, fast. The hardware really does feel like a big iPhone — and a big original iPhone at that, with the aluminum back. (I have never liked the plastic 3G/S iPhones as much as the original in terms of how it feels in my hand.) I expected the screen size to be the biggest differentiating factor in how the iPad feels compared to an iPhone, but I think the speed difference is just as big a factor. Web pages render so fast it was hard to believe. After using the iPhone so much for two and a half years, I’ve become accustomed to web pages rendering (relative to the Mac) slowly. On the iPad, they seem to render nearly instantly. (802.11n Wi-Fi helps too.)

The Maps app is crazy fast. Apps launch fast. Scrolling is fast. The Photos app is fast.

The iPad hardware is exactly what you think. It looks great, it feels great. It’s very nice to hold. (People are complaining about the wide bezel around the display, but without that, where would your thumbs go? You don’t want your thumb that’s holding the device to cover on-screen content or register as a touch. Trust me, it’s just right.) Just like with the iPhone, it’s all in the software. And the software is obviously marvelous in many ways. It is clearly the result of deep thought and hard work.

But: everyone I spoke to in the press room was raving first and foremost about the speed. None of us could shut up about it. It feels impossibly fast. (And our next thought: What happens if Apple has figured out a way to make a CPU like A4 that fits in an iPhone? If they pull that off for this year’s new iPhone, look out.)

Apple doesn’t talk much about the technical details of the iPhone. They never talk about CPU speed or the name of the chip being used. They don’t tell you how much RAM is in there. Part of their vision for moving computers from technical culture to popular culture is about getting away from defining these things by their technical specs. So the prominent talk about A4 is telling. This is something they want us to notice.

I mentioned this year-ago quote from Apple COO Tim Cook the other day, but it’s apt here, too. Cook told BusinessWeek, “We believe in the simple, not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.”

Apple now owns and controls their own mobile CPUs. There aren’t many companies in the world that can say that. And from what I saw today, Apple doesn’t just own and control a mobile CPU, they own and control the hands-down best mobile CPU in the world. Software aside (which is a huge thing to put aside), it may well be that no other company could make a device today matching the price, size, and performance of the iPad. They’re not getting into the CPU business for kicks, they’re getting into it to kick ass.

They’re Microsoft and Intel rolled into one when it comes to mobile computing. In the pre-taped video Apple showed, Bob Mansfield said of the iPad, “No one else could do it.” Only Apple.

And so my takeaway from this — with the bragging about making their own CPUs and their annual revenue and their size compared to companies like Sony, Samsung, and Nokia — is that this is Apple’s way of asserting that they’re taking over the penthouse suite as the strongest and best company in the whole ones-and-zeroes racket.