Is Apple's iPad 2 a Nintendo-Sony-Microsoft Killer?

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Is Apple's splashy new iPad 2 a threat to game systems like the 3DS, NGP, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3? Is Apple positioning itself to grab huge swathes of gamers away from Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony?

You wouldn't know it from Apple's launch show yesterday. Sure, the iPad 2 has a faster processor with jacked up graphics and the inside pipeline to an App Store insanely flush with games. But if we're talking gaming as serious business here, where were all the game developers lined up with "killer" demos?

Nowhere, as usual. Blame Apple. For all the company's magical "post-PC" preachifying, it's never been any good at getting out in front of its technology and selling it more than conceptually to gamers.

At the original iPad launch, Apple devoted a fractional few minutes to a handful of upscaled iPhone games before abandoning the topic altogether. Apple's Game Center, an elegant albeit simplistic matchmaking and achievement tracking tool, is really just a watered-down imitation of Microsoft's Xbox Live. And at yesterday's iPad 2 event, no one bothered to mention gaming at all, much less raise a flag for it.

Apple's reluctance to promote itself as a vanguard of the games industry hasn't stopped developers from all but hijacking the company's technology to truck in games by the semi-load. And it hardly takes a genius to look at a physics puzzler like Angry Birds, which its developer Rovio claims has been downloaded nearly 100 million times--a figure that dwarfs the estimated 20 million copies sold by Activision's Modern Warfare 2--to see just how meteoric a force "AppleGaming" has become.

So what if Apple hasn't happened to gaming. Gaming happened to Apple.

What to make, then, of rumbling that the iPad 2 (and rumored iPhone 5) could rival gaming heavyweights Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft? Could Apple go toe-to-toe with Nintendo's imminent 3DS handheld? Sony's "holiday 2011" NGP (PSP2)? And what about consoles like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, ostensibly hanging on for another half-decade or more?

Apple vs. NintendoSony

Let's started with handhelds. The iPad's no more a 3DS or NGP challenger than it's an iPhone rival. It's a 1.3 pound, nearly 10-inch slate. If I want a handheld, I want a handheld, not a lap-held. If the 3DS and NGP have a rival, it's the iPhone, fourth-generation on.

And looking at where the iPhone is today, it's easy to imagine Apple going rounds with the 3DS. Sure, Nintendo's handheld offers auto-stereoscopic 3D (no need for glasses), dual screens, access to Nintendo's IP stable (Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, etc.), and a deterministic (buttons) interface.

But there's a--quantity still unknown, but I'd wager considerable--gaming demographic that doesn't really care about portable 3D, the number of screens, Nintendo characters, or dedicated buttons. Who want to game on the go as well as do it with a single (all-in-one) device. The sort of gamer that's just as content (if not more so) to pass the time with games like Dino Rush and Doodle Jump and Tiny Wings as New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Kart and Tetris.

Who knows what that demographic adds up to out of an estimated 140 million Nintendo DS units sold worldwide. But during its peak months, the DS sold around two million units (in the U.S.). Apple's iPhone routinely doubles that, and--chew on this figure--some analysts believe Apple's on track to sell a cool 75 million iPhones worldwide in 2011 alone.

And the NGP? It's pretty simple: Sony doesn't seem interested in Apple's demographic, and I'm pretty sure they're already positioning their upcoming "portable console" to sell more to mainstream-enthusiast gamers like me.

Apple vs. XboxPlayStation

Let's talk a little more about "gamers like me." The kind that routinely spend 20 to 40 hours a week in front of a PC or TV screen grinding through games that model anything from the sophisticated ballistics of hair-trigger gunplay to the ebb and flow of full-on virtual world economies. Not only are the kinds of games I tend to play not happening on an iPhone, they'll always be untenable on a buttonless device with a tiny 3.5-inch screen.

Enter the iPad. It offers a screen that's at least netbook-worthy. You can plug it into a cradle and type on it with a keyboard. True, it's still miles away from an Xbox 360, PS3, or PC, and if you want to play Call of Duty or StarCraft II, you're definitely reaching for a gamepad or keyboard and mouse, not a slate.

But what if Apple let you run the iPad out to another display and drive with a more traditional gaming interface? Right--it's as liable to happen as Apple dismantling its "Checkpoint Charlie" approach to the App Store.

But what if, right? Shoot the moon with me. What if Apple shoehorned something like its Apple TV technology into the iPad? What if the iPad could connect to a larger screen either wirelessly or through a docking cradle and let you channel retooled versions of applications (chiefly games, but alternatively Netflix, Hulu, etc.) culled from its over 300,000 App Store apps?

What if Apple allowed wireless game controllers to drive games on the iPad (something the company could frankly do today, if it wanted)? And what if the iPad could tether to your 50 or 60 or 70 inch high-definition TV (also something the company could do today, if it wanted)?

What if the iPad became your set-top console?

And you know, what's so fanciful about any of that? The first-generation iPad's already pretty adept at rendering visually complex games. Have you seen EA's Dead Space running on the iPad at near-720p resolution?

Sure, both the iPad and iPad 2 sport just 1024 by 768 pixel screens, but nothing's stopping Apple from pushing 1280 by 720 pixels to an external display--say your living room flatscreen.

And Apple's iPad 2 just upped the ante "ninefold" (well, says Apple) with its A5 dual-core processor. No one's sure what that translates to gaming-wise yet, but it sounds formidable. And where Microsoft and Sony are boasting 10-year console cycles, Apple looks to release updated iPads (and iPhones) pretty much annually. At this rate, where do you suppose the iPad's going to be in terms of horsepower in just two or three years?

What do you think? Am I off the reservation here? Or is Apple sitting on a potential NintendoSony, XboxPlayStation (and beyond) killer?

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