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Summary:

Reports on Tuesday claimed that Apple has ordered 7.85-inch test displays for a possible iPad mini to come with the next big hardware refresh. We’ve heard it before, and we’ve heard Apple say it isn’t happening. But things have changed since then.

ipad-small

Reports on Tuesday claimed that Apple has ordered 7.85-inch test displays for a possible iPad mini to come with the next big hardware refresh. Of course, we’ve heard talk of a smaller iPad for a long time, and yet former CEO Steve Jobs was vocally opposed to the idea. Still, the context has changed since then, so here’s why I think we’ll see an iPad mini at some point down the road, and likely sooner, rather than later.

The languishing iPod touch

Apple “updated” the iPod touch when it unveiled the iPhone 4S, but it’s not what you would call a revolutionary change; in fact, it seems like the only thing Apple changed was to add a white color option for its touchscreen iOS-powered media player.

I think that’s because the role the iPod touch played is becoming less of an issue now that the iPhone is more widespread worldwide, and especially now that Apple makes an iPhone that can be had for $0 on contract in many markets (the 8 GB 3GS). The touch is an iPhone for people who otherwise couldn’t have one; with far fewer barriers to entry for an iPhone, the touch’s role in Apple’s line is less defined.

Some pundits have described a smaller iPad as a larger iPod touch, and they’d essentially be right. But simply adding some screen real estate to an iPod touch, while keeping it slim and small enough to hopefully fit in a back pocket (to borrow a standard for portability held dear by my colleague Kevin Tofel), changes the role of such a device in significant ways. It becomes a third category of product, one that might offer something to both existing iPhone and iPad owners, unlike the iPod touch.

Apple can diversify the category it created

The tablet is still in its infancy, but Apple has already shown that its interpretation of the device can threaten long-established products like the notebook PC and help Apple take a lead position in how computing will look ten years from now.

The upheaval Apple spearheaded means we’ll soon think about tablets as a different sort of category of device from others, I believe. It will be more like PCs, where people often have both desktops and notebooks to suit different purposes, but lower costs could make it viable to own multiple tablets with similar, but distinct niches.

There’s a healthy consumer appetite for Apple tablets, and I think Apple will test that appetite with variations on its original theme, the same way the iPod spawned a bevy of model types during its rise to prominence. Apple admittedly seems to be simplifying its iPod line now, but that’s because interest as waning as consumers turn their gaze to iPhones and iPads.

Kindle Fire demonstrates interest in small done right

Consumers have only been cool to lukewarm on smaller slates to date, but the Amazon Kindle Fire seems to be proving there’s a definite interest in that category of device, if done well. Amazon is selling lots of pre-orders to customers based mostly on its reputation, a few slick product demos, and pricing.

Amazon may have a decent head start, but Apple doesn’t have to be first to a smaller tablet to be the best. It has proven time and time again that a strategy of taking what works for its competitors, and then polishing that concept and presenting it as new and magical works well with consumers. The latest example of such a strategy is Siri, which owes at least somewhat to Android’s Voice Actions on Google phones. Apple’s reputation, combined with a stellar experience, could help it swoop in and steal Amazon’s thunder after the e-tailing pioneer proves there’s a strong consumer demand.

Final thoughts

The iPhone 4S kept the iPhone 4’s screen, which is 3.5 inches. One reason Apple did that may have been to make it optimal for use with one hand, but another could be to keep the phone territory distinct from the tablet space. Large, unwieldy phones don’t seem like something Apple would create, but slim, portable tablets, despite Jobs’ past comments, could definitely fit the company’s design history.

As to past comments denying such a device is forthcoming, don’t take those too seriously; Apple knows what to say and when to say it in order to promote its agenda at the time, and when to release something that flies in the face of earlier statements in order to capitalize on a market opportunity. If an iPad mini makes sense as a growth opportunity for Apple, it won’t let anything stand in the way of releasing one.

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  1. I’m actually in the category that would love a 7 inch iPad. I’m on my 3rd 7′ Android tablet and have yet to find one that I am truly satisfied with. The iPad is my go-to tablet, but sometimes I wish I had a thinner, lighter, compact version of it.

  2. While I agree that the iPad mini could fill a market gap, I’m not sure I follow your logic that the iPod touch “is becoming less of an issue now that the iPhone is more widespread worldwide, and especially now that Apple makes an iPhone that can be had for $0 on contract in many markets (the 8 GB 3GS).” $0 on contract winds up costing the owner about $65 USD/month (including taxes) for a minimum of 24 months, for a grand total of about $1,560. The iPod touch, on the other hand, can be had for a mere $199—less for a refurb.

    I don’t own an iPhone for the simple reason that the plans are so ridiculously expensive. Why on Earth would I spent $65/month or more when my $9/month GoPhone plan keeps accruing rollover minutes? If I want an iOS device the size of an iPhone, the iPod touch is absolutely perfect.

    My 2¢.

    1. Completely agree. There’s another market for the touch: kids. While you probably wouldn’t want a kid walking around with any expensive device, at $200 with no contract, the touch is probably something you could give to your kids (like the kindle fire) to play games or watch videos with.

  3. “As to past comments denying that such a device is forthcoming, don’t take those too seriously”
    What about the past comments ‘confirming’ that a smaller iPad is coming?

    The biggest problem is that applications would have to be updated for yet ANOTHER screen size.

    Also, the Kindle Fire shows interest in a $200 tablet, which is NOT Apple’s style.

    1. if aspect ratio remains same as the current ipad, zooming down shouldn’t be that hard w/a dual core cpu and some more ram :)

  4. i myself have been begging Apple to make a 7″ iPad. after owning the original Galaxy Tab (7″), its the perfect size to actually take everywhere and when combined w/mobile data = perfect tablet. now if only they could add a stylus like my Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet has… hmm… can you say going back to your apple roots and getting the designers and drawers onboard? :)

  5. No. No No No No No No No No No No No.

    No.

  6. vincentisdoinghisiphone Wednesday, October 19, 2011

    cuz crapple copies everything android

  7. I would have added another reason, this will get rid of that “1 size fits all” so many are bitching about. If the iPad is Apples future “consumer PC” then they need to take a similar tiered approach as with the MBP.

    More importantly, Google see’s the 7″ form factor as not only more portable but also a “differentiator” from the iPad. If the form factor takes off & they sale millions of them there is no way Apple can just let that market go.

    Ultimately they are 2 different beats, 1 is a replacement for the school size notepad & the other is the replacement for the paperback novel.

    4:3 (.75) looks terrible on small screens. My guess is they will take the 3:2 (.66) approach like the iPhone unlike the widescreen (.62) & below Android favors.

  8. iPhone App development Thursday, October 20, 2011

    Big iPad is fine for me

  9. I would love to see a mini. The iphone/ipod touch is too small for reading books, but the iPad is so big it isn’t very portable. A mini would fit in my purse. =-)

    I also agree the touch should stay because of the data plans. I live in a rural area where I don’t have cell service at my house – but I have wifi.

  10. I think a 7″ iPad would be Perfect. I’m really hoping to see that actually. Throughout my comtemplation as to which tablet is best for web,apps,games,movies AND reading, a mini iPad would be it! The ipad’s screen display is beautiful and having it in 7″ would really attract a mass of consumers with regards to cost, size, weight, portability. Looking forward to it, I’ve actually decided to ‘wait and see’ if this iPad mini rumor becomes a reality, before I buy an e-reader/tablet right now, considering the Amazon Fire and Nook Tablet have already hit the market.

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