For UK technophiles, today is a red-letter day with the launch of two new pieces of hardware. The iPad 2, the follow-up to the now iconic tablet, will go on sale in Apple Stores around the country, while gamers will be eager to get their hands on Nintendo’s 3DS, a new version of the manufacturer’s big-selling handheld console.
Although similar to the first iPad, Apple’s new machine boasts greatly improved processing speed and a much slimmer casing, as well as two cameras for video conferencing. It will be available in 16, 32 and 64GB variants, as well as Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi and 3G. The price for a basic version of the iPad 2 (16GB and Wi-Fi) is £399, the same as the current iPad, with the most expensive version (64GB, Wi-Fi and 3G) priced at £659.
Nintendo’s new machine represents a far greater leap from its predecessor, with the 3DS offering three-dimensional visuals without the need for 3D glasses. This means the on-screen action now has genuine depth, alongside a raft of new features, including a 3D camera for taking pictures, Wi-Fi connectivity and the promise of 3D content via broadcasters such as Sky and Eurosport.
Nintendo recommended a retail price of £229, however, retailers keen to cash in on the inevitable demand have slowly pushed the price down since January, with Morrisons currently offering the machine on pre-order for £187.
DS consoles have sold in excess of 140million units worldwide since its first incarnation back in 2004, making it the second most popular most popular gaming console ever launched just behind Sony’s PlayStation 2 (150million). Apple too has done some business with the first iPad shifting more than 15million units worldwide since it launched in April last year. However, both manufacturers have faced uncertainty leading up to the launch due to a proliferation of rival tablets for Apple and the popularity of game-capable smart phones for Nintendo.
According to Matt Hill, Deputy Editor of T3 Magazine, smart phones represent a serious threat to the 3DS, especially as games on the phones are so much cheaper than the £20 to £30 consumers will have to pay for a 3DS title. “Compare the 3DS launch title Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition, which retails at £30, with Super Street Fighter IV on the iPhone and iPod Touch, which retails at £5.99. The former is a much better gaming experience, but is it 400 per cent better?”
A glasses-free 3D experience is the console’s big selling point but other manufacturers are not far behind with LG due to launch the similarly auto stereoscopic 3D-enabled Optimus mobile handset next month. Nintendo are quick to point out that pre-order sales for the 3DS have trumped those for any previous launch, suggesting to them that the competition from phones is negligible.
According to James Honeywell, a marketing Manager for Nintendo, smart phones are very different products from the 3DS.
“The strength that we have is the quality of the software. You can’t get the kind of software we’re offering on any other device. That’s what drove consumers to buy the original DS.”
He does, however, admit that pre-orders have exceeded all expectations “The numbers have been very surprising. We will have sold around 120,000 3DS units in theUKbefore it even launches.”
For perspective, the Wii sold 60,000 on pre-order while the DSi (the 3DS’s forerunner) sold 80,000. The price war between retailers is one possible explanation for the pre-order bonanza. As Honeywell states: “we expected some movement in the price, but no the steady decrease from the initial announcement in January. Ultimately it’s great for the consumer.” Yet there’s also the huge inherent appeal of a new piece of technology, especially one so targeted at the young.
The iPad 2 is a slightly different proposition. Though it does offer gaming, alongside myriad other uses, it is a machine targeted an older demographic, which is reflected in the price. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a similar “shiny” appeal as the 3DS, but those who bought the first iPad might not be as willing to part with another £400 for a bit more speed.
For Hill this remains the problem for the iPad 2: “The dual-core processor is much quicker and it’s aesthetically a much nicer machine, but that’s about it. So it depends how much consumers really need to have the newest, most beautiful gadget around.”
Some commentators have suggested that Apple is launching on the same day as the 3DS to show their intent within the gaming market, but for Hill this doesn’t make sense. “It’s a coincidence, nothing more”. Honeywell disagrees. “It’s near to the end of the financial year. It’s a good time to launch a product.”
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Cheers echoed around the huge conference hall as the name was finally announced. For the second year running, Texas Republican Ron Paul had won the straw poll for the Presidential nomination at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). For most in attendance, particularly the 1100 or so supporters of the Texas Governor who had made the trip to Washington, the result was never in doubt.
Yet despite their enthusiasm, Paul remains at best an outsider within the Republican Party thanks to his fixation with the Federal Reserve and his advocacy of complete isolationism in regards to US foreign policy. Earlier in the conference, Donald Trump, a fellow potential nominee, had draw jeers from the crowd by stating that Paul had “no chance”. Most serious political opinion agrees with Trump, though these are strange times for a Republican Party whose shape is being shifted by the gravitational pull of different groups, factions and figures from within its own broad ranks.
Speaking after the event, Tony Fabrizio, the Republic pollster in charge of collating the results, offered some perspective: “In the same poll in 2007, Rudi Giuliani and Mitt Romney finished a close first and second. Guess who came in fifth? John McCain.” A year later McCain won the Florida primary en route to his ultimately unsuccessful run for President. Sarah Palin, then a little-known Governor of a peripheral state, was not even on the ballot card. In short, the poll means nothing; anything can happen.
Every year, CPAC offers those affiliated with the right of American politics the opportunity to come together, debate the direction of the movement and, in the years preceding an election, cast an eye over prospective candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. Organised by the American Conservative Union Foundation, the event started in the early seventies, growing through the decades to become an annual point of focus not only for the thousands of attendees, but the many millions throughout America for whom conservatism is not only a political leaning but a way of life.
Yet recent yeas has seen a schism develop in American conservatism with the Tea Party, a grass roots movement born from the ruins of Republican defeat in 2008, outflanking the GOP to secure huge swathes of populist support throughout much of America’s heartland. Theirs is a message of fiscal and moral conservatism, anchored in the twin pillars of Christian teaching and Reaganomics.
Much of their ire is directed at President Obama, with oft-quoted accusations ranging from genuine concerns about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, to the downright conspiratorial, in which the President is a Kenyan-born fifth columnist planted in the White House as part of a communist/Muslim plot.
Despite the movement’s willingness to propound outlandish beliefs, their political power has grown spectacularly during the past three years, so much so that many in the GOP have been forced to shift further from the centre in order to ally themselves with the Tea Party’s more conservative agenda.
Last year’s mid-term elections, in which the Republican Party secured the House of Representatives, including the election of a number of Tea Party-backed candidates, served to emphasise the growing re-alignment of the GOP, moving rightwards as to remain connected to the vocal Tea Party base. Only recently, John Boehner, the new leader of the house, refused to denounce those that question Obama’s constitutional eligibility, arguing that “it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.” Although Boehner has a strong conservative voting record, he is certainly no crackpot and has stated on record that he believes Obama is a US citizen. Yet his refusal to denounce the “Birthers” (those who question Obama’s citizenship), a sop to the Tea Party faithful, indicates how much their support is now prized within the GOP.
The emergence of the Tea Party has certainly energised the American Right, breathing new life into a Republican Party that less than three years ago looked old, ponderous and frail next to the Democrats and their newly-elected talisman. Since then, the fallout of the global economic crisis, the healthcare debate and the ongoing issue of immigration have eaten away at Obama’s popularity, hindered further by a Tea Party whose concern about shifting demographics, particularly the influx from the southern border, has galvanised their opposition. “Take Back Our Country” is a crude yet all-encompassing emblem for the Tea Partiers, whether their concerns are economic, demographic or, in the case of those convinced of an Islamic/communist coup, fanciful bordering on sinister.
So where does this leave the 2012 election? The emergence of the Tea Party may well skewer the field for the next election not only pushing new candidates to the fore, but also influencing the campaign message of the established candidates. One of the Tea Party’s central messages is cuts in spending. As such, expect to find that issue high on every Republican candidate’s agenda. As a Muriel Coleman, a board member of the American Conservative Union told me on the second day of the conference, “the winner will be the person who takes the core principles of Reagan and moves them into 2012”.
Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts who was also a candidate for the 2008 election, looks a certainty to run, alongside former Arkansas Governor turned Fox News host Mike Huckabee. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty also looks a likely candidate, along with Haley Barbour, the current governor of Mississippi’s and Indiana’s governor Mitch Daniels.
Outside the main field, Ron Paul has plenty of support among young Republicans and Libertarians. One man that has already said he will stand is Fred Karger, an openly-gay Republican strategist who served in the Reagan Administration and will run as an independent. Then there’s Donald Trump. All of the above attended CPAC with the exception of Huckabee.
Speaking to Karger, it seems his candidacy is more about offering publicity for gay civil rights than a genuine tilt at the White House, though running as a centrist (“a fiscal conservative and a social moderate” as he puts it) does offer an alternative to the very polarised nature of current domestic politics in the US. And perhaps the most polarising figure in US politics remains the big unknown for 2012.
“I think Sarah Palin is going to get in to this,” says Karger. “If she does it’ll throw a money wrench into everyone else’s plans”. Like Huckabee, Palin also failed to appear at CPAC, yet her shadow loomed large over the three-day event. The 2008 Vice Presidential nominee has yet to rule herself out, however despite her undoubted popularity in the heartland, many attendees in Washington, especially the younger conservatives, were unconvinced by Palin’s credentials. “I can see why she resonates with a lot of people in this country,” Eric Chester, President of the Libertarian Club at the University of Delaware, tells me on the third day. “But I certainly wouldn’t vote for her.”
Likewise Ashlee Filkins, a student at the West Virginia University: “Palin is a good cheerleader and very good at voter-initiative but I don’t think she’s a viable candidate for 2012.”
Speaking to other attendees, Palin’s no show, along with her recent foray into reality TV hasn’t proved endearing. Another factor that could diminish her popularity is the emergence of Michelle Bachmann, a representative for Minnesota’s 6th congressional district who in recent months has been hailed as the new darling of the Tea Party, Similar to Palin, Bachmann is a staunch conservative who believes in the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools, the phasing out of social welfare programmes and a ban on same-sex marriages. Whether she can have an impact on the race for 2012 is debatable, especially after she gave her own Tea Party-backed response to Obama’s recent State of the Union address, much to the chagrin of many within the GOP. Then again, she opened the conference at CPAC.
Karger remained diplomatic on his potential fellow nominees. “I’m an advocate of the big tent,” he says. “It’s the more the merrier.” More there certainly will be, but with no front runner and prospective Republican candidates faced with the almost impossible task of appealing to both the moderate and extreme wings of the party, come November 2012 the merriment may well belong to the Democrats and Barack Obama.