iPad 2 At the beginning of March Apple announced its second tablet. What caught many people off guard was that the iPad 2 was not ‘coming in three months’ or ‘coming this summer’, but coming ready or not – almost immediately, in fact.

Not only that, but Apple boss Steve Jobs said that 2011 will be “the year of the iPad 2”. Given the roaring success of the original iPad – the Apple tablet took 90 percent of the market last year – that isn’t such a bold claim as it sounds. But the iPad also proved that there’s plenty of demand for an instant-on, highly portable, colour-screened, web-enabled tablet. And it’s this that will prove Apple’s biggest challenge with the iPad 2.

Jobs has acknowledged that the redesign and faster processor of the new iPad was a necessary step as he laughed off the coming of the Android tablets, some of which have recently stolen market share from Apple.

Given the absolute dominance of the first iPad, rival tablet makers knew their own devices would have to be slimmer, mightier and more capable than Apple’s. The first crop of iPad-wannabes went onsale late last year, to some very mixed reviews. Aside from the Samsung Galaxy Tab, most fell by the wayside. The few exceptions were mainly very inexpensive – the Advent Vega from PC World and the ViewSonic ViewPad were among the better examples – appealing to budget buyers who could forgive sluggish, buggy performance and glitchy interfaces.

But many of these other tablets were every bit as expensive as the iPad; they simply weren’t as good and were put out by firms with neither Apple’s unwavering attention to usability and design, nor its ability to buy components in sufficient quantities to sell them at the sort of price Apple could with the iPad.

Jobs has been proved right: the iPad was “a magical product at a magical price”. But we’re in a different place now. The iPad 2 offers several compelling new features: a slimmer 8.8mm profile, a dual-core processor with twice as much oomph and much improved graphics. But it’s also launching into a proven market – one about which Apple’s rivals have learned plenty, and often at huge expense.

These tablets have every bit as much firepower as the iPad, and their makers almost as much marketing and design clout as Apple, even if some of them are lumped under the Android umbrella. They also now have platforms specifically written for tablet computing at their disposal. The Android Honeycomb tablet interface on the Motorola Xoom and HTC Flyer looks stunning. We’re hoping our initial hands-on tests prove us right and at least some of these tablets work like a charm. The BlackBerry Playbook with its 3D screen and deep integration with Adobe also looks like being a hit.

We don’t even discount Microsoft coming good with Windows 7 tablets. After all, it’s finally pulled off a compelling, functional mobile platform in the form of Windows Phone 7.

Last year’s iPad was making a new market; this year’s model is launching as one of hundreds. Choice and innovation are two things we love to see and there’s plenty of it in the tablets market right now. All of which suggests that Apple couldn’t afford not to rethink the iPad. Last year was emphatically the year of the iPad; this year, Apple is going to have to try a lot harder.