iPad Mini?

Months before Apple unveils a new product, speculation abounds as to what it will be. On the eve of the iPad 4 (or the “new, new iPad”), there are myriad rumors as to the features and design. Let’s take a look at the rumors and also a more practical assessment of what to expect with the iPad 4.

The most abundant speculation surrounds the iPad Mini. Amazon, and now Google, have released smaller tablets at the $200 price range. These tablets are mainly content slates. They are designed to deliver paid content from Amazon and Google Play. While they can run a wide variety of apps, the initial user experience is oriented towards purchasing content — music, video, and electronic publications.

The Amazon Kindle Fire is enormously successful. At first, the device did not get rave reviews, as the cloud based Silk browser left much to be desired. After some updates and phenomenal sales, consumers have flocked to the device. Amazon sells a little over 1 million tablets per month. So far, this is the most successful challenger to Apple’s iPad lineup. However, this has not put much of a dent in iPad purchasing. The iPad is expected to continue its market hegemony in 2012.

Google recently released their own small tablet which is garnering much attention — the Nexus 7. This device has proven to be enormously successful and is flying off the shelves. Indeed, most retailers are out of stock, as consumer demand has literally emptied the shelves. Although it is difficult to find, as many retailers do not have the tablet in stock yet, early indications show it will be a big seller. Much like the Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7 is positioned as a content slate, with an emphasis on gaming. The main criticism of the Google Nexus 7 is that Google Play has less content than Amazon or Apple. This is expected to improve over time.

With the emergence of mini tablets, the blogosphere is actively speculating that Apple will offer their own iPad Mini. While I tend to be adverse to hype, I will have to agree that an iPad Mini is likely. I do find it humorous that bloggers are Photoshopping scaled down versions of the current iPad, as if no one could imagine a smaller iPad. In addition to being smaller, I expect other design innovations. I think the iPad Mini will be constructed of more rugged materials and have a thinner form factor. This is an iPad that users will carry with them practically everywhere, much like the Kindle. Sapphire glass may be utilized to make it more robust, but it may be cost prohibitive. Apple can charge a little more than the competition, but not too much. Anything beyond $250 will be a deal breaker. I think the iPad Mini will be a mashup of the iPhone 4/S and the iPad. I could see this looking like a larger iPhone as much as a smaller iPad. I don’t think I need to scale either of these in Photoshop (actually, I use GIMP) for us to visualize these concepts.

The main gripe about the iPad has been cost. They are expensive. They cost more than most notebook computers, and offer less functionality. With the release of “the new iPad” (with the Retina display), Apple dramatically cut the price of the iPad 2, but it still costs twice as much as the Kindle Fire or Google Nexus 7.

Unlike a bigger iPhone, which I don’t believe to be on Apple’s product roadmap, a smaller iPad makes much more sense. Scaling graphics down to a smaller display does not involve the same issues as introducing a larger display, such as a larger iPhone. In fact, even without a Retina display, an iPad Mini would have crisp graphics due to the smaller size, as long as it has the same number of pixels as the iPad 2 (which creates no extra compatibility work for developers). A smaller tablet would be more portable. A tablet with the form factor of a pamphlet seems ideal.

I still don’t believe in a larger iPhone. A phone needs to fit in one’s pocket. It needs to fit in the palm of one’s hand and be held to the ear. It doesn’t make sense. The lack of ability to design and manufacture small form devices results in larger phones from other manufacturers. Apple excels at making small devices. A smaller tablet is completely logical. I don’t take my iPad 2 out of my home. I take my iPhone everywhere. I see more Kindles out in public than iPads. The iPad Mini would definitely change that.

An iPad Mini, priced in the $200-250 range, would be bad news for Amazon and Google. This smaller iPad would have access to the massive universe of content that Apple has built up over the years — hundreds of thousands of apps, the largest music store, e-books from a variety of content channels (iBooks, Kindle, etc.), and a wide variety of video content from iTunes, Netflix, Hulu and others. AirPlay compatibility enables displaying content on the big screen, something the competing tablets seem to lack (although Android has DoubleTwist, which can provide AirPlay compatibility, on compatible devices).

If Apple does not release an iPad Mini soon, they will succumb to the competition. In my opinion, this might not be a bad thing. I celebrate the advancement of Android and Windows tablets. Monopolies and hegemony are not good for consumers. If Apple has no viable competition they can rest on their laurels, resulting in inferior quality. Even worse, they can gouge consumers.

Unfortunately, I envision Apple releasing an iPad Mini, keeping their stranglehold on the tablet market. This dominance will continue beyond 2012. I can only hope that the success of the Kindle Fire and Google Nexus will keep Apple vigilant and committed to quality. Indeed, the more successful Apple becomes, the more product quality declines.

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