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How the iPad mini became Apple’s middle child

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From the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad, Apple has managed shifts in category lifecycles better than any consumer technology company, but even it occasionally seems flummoxed about what to do with a product category. One example of this was the iPod nano. Once a flagship, it became a challenge after the introduction of the iPod touch, the iPod family’s last shining light. Apple changed the nano’s fundamental design more times than any other product in its modern era.

And while its design has remained steady, the iPad mini has also been a tricky product for Apple. The company entered the category after significant pressure to introduce a smaller iPad, something it seemed reluctant to do when it introduced the first tablet. When Phil Schiller first showed it off in 2012, he seemed to acknowledge some of the internal Apple questions around the product by posing, “What can you do with an iPad mini that you can’t already do with the amazing fourth-generation iPad?” (His answer: hold it in one hand.)

Apple had entered the smaller tablet market, but on its own terms. Schiller went on to note that the product wasn’t “a shrunken-down iPad,” praising its aluminum and glass enclosure in which “every detail was finely crafted.” It would be priced starting at $329, far above the level of (admittedly smaller) competitors such as Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire.

iPad mini: Big experience in a small package Thumbnail

But the iPad mini would come with a few strikes against it compared to the larger flagship that was introduced along with it. These included the lack of a Retina display — now available on all Apple devices except for the MacBook Air — and a previous-generation processor. Indeed, the iPad mini 2 represented the product’s high-water mark in relation to the flagship iPad, the first iPad Air; the two products were virtually identical except for screen size. However it also saw a price jump to a far market outlier of $399.

But with the iPad Air 2 and the iPad mini 3, the products have diverged again. The iPad Air 2 has Apple’s latest and greatest processor and has slimmed down far below the thickness of the iPad mini. The larger iPad has also seen strong improvement in both its front and rear imaging, bringing in technology from the iPhone. In contrast, the addition of the Touch ID sensor is all that really distinguishes the iPad mini 3 from its predecessor. Apple has kept that product around at $299 as well as the original iPad mini at $249, making it Apple’s least expensive iPad.

Why was the mini so neglected in this round as smaller, powerful Android tablets such as the Nexus 9, NVIDIA Shield tablet, and Dell Venue 8 7000 have surfaced? Surely, there’s no issue in getting its eighth-generation silicon into a smaller or high-volume package, as Apple has done so with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Most likely, Apple is feeling competitive heat at the low end of the tablet market and can’t put its latest and greatest technology into a less expensive offering at this point.

Another may be that the company is reacting to softness in the tablet market and cutting back its one-two punch, preferring instead to use the cheaper iPad minis as a way to attract consumers to its ecosystem. In addition, even though there is a healthy screen size gap between the iPhone 6 Plus and the iPad mini, it may want to give its largest iPhone a bit more breathing room.

While there will always be those who want the latest generation of something, though, it’s hard to justify the new mini at $100 more than its predecessor given TouchID, the signature application of which is Apple Pay. That’s a shame for fans of the product who may see its progress as stagnating. Apple could do more to win their business by pulling the trigger on a relatively quick revision to a faster iPad mini 4 the same way it transitioned from the third to fourth-generation iPad.

9 Responses to “How the iPad mini became Apple’s middle child”

  1. Bob Foster

    I’m using my iPad Air right now while I’m laying here on the couch on my off day from work and to me I like that better than the iPad Mini Retina that my Mom has because the iPad Air is light enough where you can just lay in the bed and look at your tablet or like me I have a protective case with a tablet sleeve over it and I take it and drop it in my purse and carry it places with me. That’s the reason why I sold my Galaxy Note II because this screen is even bigger so I just downgraded back down to a basic cell phone and saving a lot of money and carrying my WiFi hotspot with me when I’m out and using the home WiFi when I’m at home. Plus I like the 9.7 inch size better because I don’t have to keep scaling and zooming the screen as much. The iPad Mini is a perfect fit for some people just like the iPad Air is a perfect fit for others….it just depends on the person. For some reason I couldn’t never really get into the iPad mini/Retina and that’s maybe because I like bigger screens period but my Mother really likes the iPad Mini with Retina that I bought her for Christmas.

  2. As a staunch IPad mini user for travel, I was disappointed twice by Apple this Fall. The first was that they chose to let the IPad mini stagnate this year. The second disappointment – the IPhone 6 plus – reinforced the first. I had hoped the IPhone 6 plus would replace my IPad mini as THE travel computer. Unfortunately, despite the IPhone 6 plus’ foray into the phablet world, the 6 plus only runs iPhone apps – not IPad apps.

  3. Paul Rubin

    If they’re going to do a combination of last year’s screen tech, last year’s guts, and a smaller size, it needs to be priced more than $100 less than the iPad Air 2. $399 is too much. $349 is more appropriate and the $299 for the Mini 2 is still reasonable at that price point because the only difference is TouchID.

    Personally I think they should kill the 2011 tech based Mini altogether or blow it out the door at $149. With each passing year they continue selling this underpowered beast, they do the iPad community a disservice in terms of future upgrades since they can’t throw it off the upgrade list til it’s not being sold for AT LEAST a year, preferably two. The Mini 2 should come in at $249 to get back units sold numbers and market share and the Mini 3 should start at 32 gigs and be $349. The Air should be dropped altogether and the Air 2 should also start at 32 gigs and be $499. The 64 gig and 128 gig versions should be $549 and $599 in this day and age and the $130 premium for Cellular needs to drop down from $130 to $99. Yes, margins will take a hit but that’s what you need to do to drive sales rather than lose a million sales a quarter and allow more users to try Android tablets and then possibly Android phones. They’re being too short sighted. They also need to put some space between the high end iPad Air 2 and the MacBook Air if there’s to be room for an iPad Pro which figures to start at $599 or $699 and I wouldn’t even sell it with less than 64 gigs of RAM. The pricing is just screwed up.

  4. Of course Apple will transition quickly. Usually their products don’t let down the faithful so much and I’m sure they still sold more than a few ipad mini retinas with fingerprint ID. They’ll also have sold a few ipad Airs to people who wanted the latest and greatest CPU but would have been happy to take the cheaper mini if it were so equipped.
    Now in the Spring they’ll loose another model mini with upgraded CPU and try to get some of those people to spend all over again. Or sweep up those who were able to wait. Typical Apple.

  5. Nicholas Paredes

    Personally, I’m not sure why Apple can’t have S, M, and L iPads — 7, 9, and 12 inch. I am also uncertain why they can not have S, M, and L iPhones. It seems reasonable. I would narrow & increase the capacity ranges, particularly given the recent memory issues with updates. Otherwise, give people the devices they need. Even the Watch has several sizes.

  6. Organica Black

    The primary issue with the mini is the pricing. It is at least $50 to much. Given the hardware in the mini Apple is getting a 175% mark-up. versus 90-110% for the iPad.