After months of speculation and rumors -- some recent ones that even included its delay -- Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) unveiled the next-generation iPad at a San Francisco launch event today. Let's get right to the main headlines of what we'll be seeing:

  • First of all, Steve Jobs appeared on stage to present. He must have appeared pretty healthy; his presence alone led to nearly a 1% immediate spike in Apple's share price.
  •  Apple's proprietary A4 processor gets a big upgrade. The new A5 is a dual-core processor that's twice as fast and features graphics that are nine times as powerful. That should put Apple ahead of or in the same ballpark as dual-core chips from NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA) and upcoming designs from Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN) and Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) that should ship in Android tablets this year.
  • The iPad is now thinner than the iPhone and shed some weight as well. In spite of these sizing improvements, battery life remains the same.
  • As expected, there's a front and rear-facing video camera.
  • The price also didn't budge. The iPad 2 will begin selling at $499 for the entry-level Wi-Fi model.
  • Ships March 11. That's sooner than most analysts expected; the last iPad launched on April 3 last year. That only hurts competitors looking to hit the market before or near the iPad's launch. Research In Motion's (Nasdaq: RIMM) PlayBook looks like its only play left is the Hail Mary.

So, no big surprises from the list. The iPad gets slimmer, faster, and fixes some obvious flaws. In addition, it'll get a big push from partnerships with not only AT&T, but Verizon as well.

The fact that the iPad comes pretty much as expected shouldn't shock many; Apple did enough to keep the iPad ahead of the curve, and it filled some glaring omissions from the previous model. These updates should push the iPad past the crop of recent Android models that are starting to hit store shelves. Make no mistake, the competition is heating up, and Apple didn't shy away from taking shots at competitors.

In one slide presentation, Apple highlighted a quote from Samsung VP Lee Young-hee, who said that, while their Galaxy Tablet had sell-in near 2 million units, the sell-out was "quite small." Basically, that means while they shipped a huge quantity of tablets to stores, not nearly as many were actually sold to customers. Never mind that Samsung later clarified that the actual quote read, "quite smooth" -- this was gloves-off time for Apple.

And it should be. Previous Android models proved to be less than satisfactory. For example, Samsung's Galaxy Tab reportedly saw a 16% return rate, a figure eight times higher than comparable rates for the iPad. The reason for this is simple: Android was designed with smartphones in mind, and many apps and other features translated poorly to larger tablet screens. However, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) recently pushed out a new version of Android built specifically for tablets that's much more competitive. Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI) recently unveiled its Xoom tablet, which has been greeted with positive reviews and is seen as the most comparable experience to the iPad yet.

However, while Android is staking its claim in smartphones, a rise to dominance in tablets should prove trickier. Apple's iPad pricing was surprisingly competitive. While consumers on average buy pricier models, they also anchor pricing expectations to the cheaper $499 entry-level model. That's a price that top-line Android models are overshooting.

Android will also get the support of a host of manufacturing companies like Dell, Samsung, and LG that are looking to break into the tablet space. The product diversity these companies create will appeal to customers looking for something different than Apple's one-size-fits-all approach, and will surely drag Apple's market share down from its current 90% slice of the pie.

However, with the total size of the tablet pie growing rapidly, Apple doesn't need a 90% share to hit modest analyst sales targets on the iPad this year. In addition, Android still lacks some killer features needed for tablet devices that are built around consuming media such as a centralized media hub like iTunes or a seamless app store that offers the variety of content found in Apple's App Store.

So, the threats to Apple's tablet dominance are growing as expected. However, by hitting an aggressive launch date (March 11) Apple managed to alleviate one of the biggest threats to its business: crimps in its massive supply chain that cause delays and allow its competitors to gain a foothold. Apple will lose share throughout the year, but thanks to the newest iPad will remain the far-away leader.

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Eric Bleeker owns shares of NVIDIA. Google is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple and NVIDIA are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool has written puts on Apple. The Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments. 

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