The October 23 Apple event, as was speculated, unwrapped the iPad mini, a 7.9 inch tablet. But it also threw up some surprises, the biggest of which was the introduction of the 4th generation iPad, says Karthik Subramanian

Apple threw up a surprise all right. The entire universe of technology blogs and forums had anticipated the iPad mini and the guys from Cupertino's Infinite Loop did not disappoint. But where they surprised, even shocked a few, was with the introduction of the fourth generation iPad, an improvement over the third generation Retina Display iPad that was introduced only in March, this year. There was also the Macbook Pro 13-inch with Retina Display and the uber-sleek new iMac.

(Just a little upsetting for those planning to make a big gadget purchase this year, because by December an upgrade is believed to be available in the stores.)

It is tempting to interpret the Apple event at San Jose, California on Tuesday as a warm welcome to Microsoft's big Windows 8 launch on October 26. It is Microsoft's much-vaunted foray into the world of mobile computing with a brand new approach. But those who have been following the pattern will know that the Tuesday announcements by Apple were just a consolidation game. Its near complete dominance in the tablet PC race is facing a modicum of challenge with the launch of Android 4.0x based devices and from the impending launch of Microsoft Surface. So far, Apple's Achilles’ heel has been its premium pricing, at least in the eyes of its competitors. Android's line-up of premium tablets (by that we mean devices that run the latest iteration of mobile OS) start at roughly $199 and at a handy size of 7 inches. Apple's entry level tablet had so far been its re-priced second generation iPad 2 at $399.

Choices galore

What the iPad mini does is it broadens the offerings from Apple to an extent where it is tempting to say there is now an Apple gadget most of us can afford.

But make no mistake, at an entry price of $329 (approximately Rs. 17,700), the iPad mini still won’t be the cheapest tablet around even at the 7 inch category. It is $130 costlier than the Google Nexus 7. But where it scores is in terms of functionality and a rather clever piece of detailing that will allow it access to an already existing dossier of Apps. Apple’s engineers have retained in the 7.9 inch iPad mini the same display resolution — 1028 pixels by 768 pixels — as featured on the 9.7 inch iPad 2. This means that what one will get to hold in their hands is an iPad mini that’s a much smaller and more concentrated version of the iPad 2.

Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, mentioned at the San Jose Apple event that the device would have access to 2,75,000 plus Apps in the iTunes market made specifically for the tablet. This universe of software readily available for the device is a key differentiator when it comes to making up one's mind to purchase any device. It is not just about owning a tablet PC but also knowing what to do with it. Apple CEO Tim Cook said Apple has only recently reached another milestone in its iPad story: crossing its 100 millionth shipment. For any developer, that is a potent piece of information when it comes to deciding whether to publish their App on the iOS platform rather than any other mobile platform.

Desktop story

While one could get lost in the brouhaha over Apple’s successes with its mobile devices — the iPad and the iPhone — the one reason Steve Jobs will be most missed will be the incredible turnaround the company is making with its desktops and laptops, or in Apple nomenclature, its Macbooks and its iMacs.

In one of his most memorable on-stage appearances at the AllthingsD conferences alongside Bill Gates, Steve Jobs had told veteran technology writer Walt Mossberg that one of the reasons Mac lost out to the PC in the desktop race was the wrong pricing strategy for the original Mac. But by the time iPad started picking up on sales numbers, it was evident that it would fuel the growth of Macs — both the iMacs and the Macbooks — as more people opted for convergence of devices.

That story seems to be coming true, finally. In the year following Jobs' demise, the Macbooks and the iMacs seem to be scoring over the PCs and laptops in ways Jobs would have liked decades ago. The Mountain Lion OS for Macs and the iOS6 mobile OS for iPads, iPhones and iPods are the most convergent operating systems that exist today. While Android exists purely in the mobile space now, the nearest competition to the Apple operating systems seems to be only just emerging from Microsoft Windows 8.

iPad Mini Specs:

7.9-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit Multi-touch display

1024-by-768 resolution at 163 pixels per inch (ppi)

Dual-core A5 chip (same as the one on iPad 2)

Front-facing HD camera (720p)

Back-camera 5 MP

Price starting at $329