Will Apple’s iPad Mini Steal Microsoft Surface’s Thunder?

After weeks of rumours and official radio silence, Apple has finally made their new product announcements. And Apple’s elastic definition of ‘radio silence’ (that is, carefully filtering leaks through several layers of brand-loyal cognoscenti) means that there are generally fewer surprises than there would be following a proper press release.

So what we got was, firstly, a series of incremental changes to existing products: a thinner iMac, a high-definition 13″ MacBook, a new Mac Mini … and a ‘refreshed’ iPad, the only product not to have heavily trailed in advance of the launch, and not exactly earth-shattering. Then, of course, there was the iPad Mini, which gobbled up most of the breathless advance hype, and is essentially a 3G/4G-enabled half-size iPad 2 – and still priced above its main competitors in that size bracket for tablets.

The timing of the announcement shouldn’t be a mystery: it is three days until Microsoft’s Windows 8 launch in San Diego. Apple and Google have both attempted to gazump the Redmond behemoth, Apple by renewing their range of high-cost, high-performance products and Google by launching another bargain-basement Chromebook.

But while the Chromebook still has some novelty value (and represents a real improvement over its predecessors, making a better case for pure web-based computing), Apple’s announcements are – all things considered – conservative. A 13” Retina MacBook? A nice piece of kit, no doubt, but there’s already a 15” model, so who’s actually going to get excited? The rest of the computer announcements are basically incremental tech-spec upgrades. As for the iPad Mini, this is a major announcement not because it actually represents anything novel, but rather a concession on Apple’s part that the late Steve Jobs was wrong about the market potential for 7” tablets, which he once wrote off as “DOA”.

Meanwhile, in the Windows world, the coming months will see hosts of new laptops for sale, 40 of which (according to Intel) will be touchscreen and/or convertible. The jury’s out on whether Windows 8 will be a success – and we’ll have to wait a while to come to a reasonable judgment. Yet we’ve reached a point where people are cautiously beginning to suggest that Microsoft and its associated hardware manufacturers might drive things forward, not just on its traditional desktop and laptop strongholds but across the new mobile platforms as well.

It’s hard to avoid the irony here. Apple has made billions of dollars by playing David to Microsoft’s Goliath – a nimble, mobile competitor that succeeded by creating trends almost single-handedly, rather than belatedly following them. Suddenly, Microsoft is taking risks and propelling its brand forward; meanwhile, Apple appears tired and, by its neophiliac standards, crippled by inertia. Mountain Lion and the iPhone 5 are incremental updates, and the new iPad is the same as the old, only smaller. The phone and RT incarnations of Windows 8, not to mention Jelly Bean, are now much slicker in look and feel than iOS. Apple is unlikely to surrender the initiative for long, but this week they won’t steal Microsoft’s $1.8 billion-worth of thunder.