Apple introduced the iPad 2 as expected on Wednesday, and that's the problem: There were absolutely no surprises at all, at least about the device itself, whose feature set was revealed by rumor sites weeks in advance. But there was one nice surprise at the event: Ailing Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who is currently on a mysterious medical leave of absence, returned temporarily to kick off the evolutionary product.

"We've been working on this product for a while, and I didn't want to miss today," an overly thin-looking Jobs said, opening the iPad announcement event, after receiving a standing ovation from the Apple-centric press in attendance. "We've got something great to announce for today."

Jobs and his Apple cohorts then went on to step through the expected product news: a thinner, slightly lighter new iPad that Apple claims offers better CPU performance and "nine times" the graphics performance of its predecessor. Despite looking almost identical to the first iPad, Jobs repeatedly described the device as "an all-new design."


The "all-new" iPad 2.

(Jobs also repeatedly said the new iPad 2 was "dramatically thinner" than its predecessor. The device's dimensions are 9.5 x 7.31 x 0.34 inches vs. 9.56 x 7.47 x 0.52 inches for the original. The new device is one-tenth of a pound lighter than its predecessor. "It almost floats," Jobs said of the 1.34-pound device.)

Looking at the few other differences, the iPad 2 includes front- and rear-facing cameras, a gyroscope, and comes in black and white versions. Battery life is identical to that of its predecessor, as is pricing, which again ranges from $500 to a whopping $829. There are an incredible 18 different models of iPad 2, which comes in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB variants, as before, and in models that work with Wi-Fi only, AT&T 3G wireless networks, and Verizon Wireless 3G. Good luck figuring out which one you want.

And that, literally, was all the news about the iPad 2. There are no screen improvements at all, not via a higher-resolution display or badly needed anti-glare, even as an option. And it's unclear why Apple doesn't simply include both AT&T and Verizon 3G chips in the same devices, and stop selling Wi-Fi-only versions (and charging so much more—$130—for versions that do include a 3G chip).

Apple did formally announce iOS 4.3, the version of the OS that runs on the iPad 2 and will soon power iPod touches and iPhones as well. And the company showed off some fun iPad 2 accessories, including an HDMI video-out add-on and a magnetic cover. Finally, Apple showed off a few new $5 apps for the device, including iMovie and GarageBand, which previously were made available for Macs.

Basically, what we have here is a decidedly evolutionary update that simply maintains the status quo, technically and from a pricing perspective. This suggests that Apple doesn't feel at all threatened by the competition, which today consists largely of a handful of mostly lackluster Android-based tablets. Problematically, the Android competition is just as expensive as the iPad lineup, so Apple obviously feels free to continue gouging consumers on iPad pricing. Those consumers show no sign of resisting this gouging, either: Apple is forecasted to sell roughly 35 million iPads this year alone.

These problems notwithstanding, if you do want to purchase a tablet device—virtually no one needs such a thing, remember—the iPad is indeed the best choice, mostly because of its rich ecosystem of apps and content. Android tablets, and other competitors from HP, Research in Motion (RIM), and, eventually, Microsoft's Windows partners—will likely never match this strength. Apple announced at the iPad event, for example, that there are now more than 65,000 apps for the iPad alone. It's a big lead.

Apple says the iPad 2 will begin shipping March 11 in the United States, but customers aren't able to preorder the device: Instead, you'll need to line up like a lemming at an Apple Store that day if you want one immediately. International sales start March 25.

For more information about the iPad 2 and launch event, please refer to my iPad 2 Preview on the SuperSite for Windows.