How the iPad mini became Apple’s middle child

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.