It's easy to say the iPad 4 is Apple's best tablet yet. It's not so easy to explain why Apple released it only eight months after the iPad 4 was released. Apple threw a curve ball at their customers when they announced the next generation iPad alongside the iPad Mini at their October media event. After all, the iPad 3 was released just eight months and represented one of the biggest upgrades to the iPad since the original release.
So why upgrade the iPad so soon? It's difficult to second guess the ultra-secret Apple, but the most common opinion is that Apple is moving their product releases for the iPad, iPhone and iPod to be more in line with the holiday season. And, rather than delay the release of the iPad 4 -- releasing in October of 2013 would mean a 20 month span of time between releases -- they decided to release this generation early.
And that's a smart move if you don't want the competition to blow past you. The iPad 4's A6X processor make the iPad easily one of (if not "the") fastest tablet on the market, but that might only be due to slightly better memory management embedded within the system-on-a-chip than the equally-fast Google Nexus 10. And no doubt, we should see a new speed king crowned within three months, and a new one three months after that (and so on...)
But moving to a holiday schedule may not be the real reason the iPad got an early upgrade. Apple dropped the numbering system from the iPad with the third release, but this isn't a universal move from Apple. They still kept to the numbering system with the iPhone, after all.
What's the significance of dropping the number and referring to the iPad as simply "the iPad"?
Apple wants to reduce the comparisons between one generation to the next and customers to think of the iPad more like they think of their computer. After all, even those that buy a top-of-the-line laptop know their pretty new machine will be surpassed within a few months. The idea isn't to always have the latest and greatest, but to simply upgrade when you need to upgrade.
We've likely seen the last of the really big new features added to the iPad lineup. Future upgrades may see some added features such as near field communications (NFC), but most upgrades are simply going to see a boost to processing power, graphics power and move to the latest and greatest data connectivity. Other added features will no doubt be minor by comparison, like moving to a 1080p 'FaceTime' camera or an 8 MP back-facing camera.
And by referring to the iPad as simply "the iPad", Apple may also be freeing themselves from upgrading the iPad based on a set amount of time passing and moving towards upgrades based on technological advances. This could mean a new iPad coming next summer, perhaps once Apple has put the finishing touches on a system-on-a-chip utilizing a quad-core processor, or it might mean no new iPad in 2013 at all.
As with anything Apple, there really is no guessing when the iPad 5 might arrive.
The real lesson we should take from Apple dropping the numbering system in favor of "the iPad" is that we should stop putting so much emphasis on comparisons from one generation to the next. The release of the iPad 4 was met with a sense of abandonment by some iPad 3 owners, who were quick to note they'd only bought their iPad eight or fewer months previous. In reality, the iPad 4 won't differentiate itself from the iPad 3 anytime soon, and it may take years before even the most hardcore user really notices a difference between the two tablets.