A sell-out iPad would've been an Apple failure

Apple's three million new iPad sales in the opening weekend are impressive but not particularly surprising; what the company has really demonstrated with the third-generation tablet isn't that it can create a coveted product, but that it can now deliver in bulk. Stock shortages have plagued Apple launches since the original iPhone, the company seemingly unable to meet demand for its high-profile phones and tablets. In fact, it's become a measure of success for stores to sell out and lines to snake outside for days and weeks as would-be owners queue desperately for the rationed hardware. Still, while "sell-out success" makes for good press hyperbole, turning customers away empty-handed isn't best for business. With the new iPad, though, Apple showed that the supply chain just got serious.

For a while, it seemed like the new iPad launch would go just as with its predecessors. Online pre-orders opened on Friday, March 9, a week before in-store availability, and by the following Monday delivery estimates were stretching 2-3 weeks away. Even now, online sales still warn of that same delay in shipments.

The expectation, then, was that competition would be fierce for units in-store on March 16, and the traditional queues – perhaps truncated a little this time around, though the usual zealots were out in force – formed. Nonetheless, a few hours after opening time at 8am, the lines were gone and new iPads still waited on shelves.

A few knee-jerk analyst reactions showed just how perverse our expectations had become: Apple hadn't sold out of every last iPad, and so the tablet must've been underwhelming. Yet take a step back and the scale of the change from last year's iPad 2 launch is clear: a simultaneous debut in ten countries across the world, including the gadget-addicted US and UK, with sufficient supplies to go around. Today, you can walk into a store and leave minutes later with a new iPad.

[aquote]Apple's achievement will be doubly-impressive on Friday[/aquote]

Apple's achievement will be doubly impressive after this coming Friday. On March 23, the new iPad goes on sale in a further 24 countries, taking the total to 34. Contrast that to the iPad 2, which initially saw an under-supplied debut in the US alone, and then 25 more locations later in the same month, for a total of 26.

"The new iPad is a blockbuster with three million sold" Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing said today, "the strongest iPad launch yet." That strength isn't just in terms of customer demand, but of Apple's ability to leverage its formidable supply chain and gets stock to where it needs to be so that more buyers go home satisfied.

The iPad isn't for everyone. Still, Android tablet manufacturers can no longer count on patchy availability for opportune gaps in the market: if people want a new iPad, they can have one today. The tablet wars are nowhere near over – Windows 8 will see a fresh batch of OEMs join the fray later in 2012 – but rivals will face an Apple that not only has razzle dazzle on-stage, but the well-oiled machine behind the scenes to back it up.