iPad 2 and the return of Steve
For a man who, according to one American tabloid, is supposed to be at death's door, Steve Jobs was in fighting form as he unveiled the iPad 2 in San Francisco. The arrival on stage of Apple's founder, who is away on sick leave, was the biggest surprise of a launch which mostly matched up to the rumours that have been around for some weeks.
Mr Jobs began by telling us that this was an event he couldn't miss - but within moments he was on the attack, saying that 2011 threatened to be the year of the copycat, as Apple's rivals rushed out tablets that just could not compare to the iPad. There were sideswipes at Samsung - how many Galaxy Tabs had they actually sold rather than putting on the shelves? And at Google's latest version of Android for tablets - had anyone got round to making apps for it yet?
Then we got the actual launch, with all the usual hoopla conducted by the maestro in the black sweater. There were slick demos, punctuated by applause from the crowd, with polished videos extolling the virtues of the old iPad - some of the images suggested it could fly an aircraft, cure the sick, or teach every child to become an attentive student. Whereas we all know that most kids are using it to play Plants versus Zombies.
As for the new version, it was "dramatically" faster, "dramatically" thinner, and had a "smart" cover which put the iPad to sleep when you closed it - "so cool" enthused Jobs. The main difference, though, seems to be the two cameras, front and rear, which allow you to make video calls, something which many Android tablets can already do.
What has not changed is the lack of connectivity - no USB port or SD card slot - so getting something in or out of this machine still means talking either to iTunes or the cloud.
I had a very brief chance to play with the tablet at the London launch event, conducting a slightly bizarre Face Time video chat with an Apple employee in California where neither of us knew quite what to say. My impression was that Apple had produced another pleasing device, but one which was not dramatically different to the original.
What impressed me more was the arrival of two apps, iMovie and Garage Band, that should turn the iPad into a portable video editing and sound mixing studio. They will be available for existing iPad users after a software upgrade.
Still, Steve Jobs promised that 2011 would be the year of the iPad 2, and made some pretty bold claims about the way his company was taking computing beyond the PC.
So is he right? Just before the event I cast an eye over the Motorola Xoom, just one of a clutch of upcoming devices running Android Honeycomb, the version of Google's operating system optimised for tablets. It too seemed fast and slick, with similar capabilities to the new iPad.
There is now real competition in the tablet market and it is by no means certain that Apple will prevail. Android fans will point to the fact that their operating system raced past the iPhone, in terms of sales at least, within a couple of years, and this time manufacturers are better prepared. Apple's supporters will tell you it's all about the apps, and there are zillions for the iPad, only a handful for the Xoom and its equivalents.
What you cannot deny is that Apple has once again shifted the focus of an entire industry. As 2010 dawned, netbooks were all the rage and many doubted there was room in the market for another type of device. A year on, every major manufacturer is throwing money at tablet development, and it is netbooks which suddenly look short of a raison d'etre.
And what really made it a good day for Apple was the reappearance of Steve Jobs. There was a reminder in his closing remarks of the way he has shaped his company's philosophy: "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough," he told the crowd. "It's technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the results that make our hearts sing."
Apple has plenty of brilliant designers and engineers behind Steve Jobs. But is there anyone waiting in the wings who can match him as a performer, a philosopher and a strategist? I doubt it.