Could we one day have an iPad suite like Apple’s iPod suite of devices? Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired
Steve Jobs famously dissed 7-inch tablets. They’re “tweeners” he said — “too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with the iPad.” Yet inside sources have reported that Apple has been working on small-tablet reference designs since 2009. Initial reports came from dubious overseas supply-chain leaks, but now even the New York Times reports that a small iPad — a 7.85-incher, to be precise — is being readied for production.
Any consumer hardware company that wants to compete must continuously explore different formfactors and use cases. So for Apple to outright shun the R&D of smaller tablets would be imprudent. But now the background chatter suggests an iPad mini really is coming in 2012. Apparently Chinese laborers are even lining up at Foxconn for a chance to build the new device. So what the heck has happened since Steve Jobs said, “7-inch tablets are going to be DOA”?
Simple: Consumers moved forward and proved Steve wrong.
“The tablet landscape has changed quite a bit over the last year or two, and we’re seeing all kinds of new screen sizes coming up,” NPD DisplaySearch analyst Richard Shim told Wired.
”Apple is facing increasing competition from Amazon and Google, and the time is right to fight back.” — Sarah Rotman Epps
The upcoming Microsoft Surface, for example, features a 10.6-inch display, and of course, the Nexus 7, Nook Color, and Kindle Fire head up the 7-inch tablet space. “Consumer preferences and access to different types of content allows them to choose what kind of consumption they want to perform, and different screen sizes can help to enhance that experience,” Shim said.
Jobs was, in fact, proven correct by the failure of early “tweener” tablets. But since the launch of the Kindle Fire, the 7-inch formfactor has found its stride as a media-consumption tool for e-books, music and video. With an upcoming iTunes and App Store redesign in the works, Apple is primed to step in and take the smaller tablet space by storm.
“This is the perfect time for Apple to compete with a smaller, cheaper tablet,” Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps told Wired. “Apple is facing increasing competition from Amazon and Google, and the time is right to fight back.”
And let’s not forget that Apple has a rich history of going “mini.” After the iPod classic, Apple at different times released the iPod mini, shuffle, and nano to reach out to different MP3 player audiences, eventually making the iPod touch the flagship, full-sized model. So, an iPad mini would not be incongruent in the greater historical pantheon of Apple devices, especially considering Apple’s notebook offerings seem to be getting ever smaller and slimmer, too.
“If you look at the iPod touch, that’s kind of like your nano or shuffle compared to the iPad,” Shim said of the scenario of an eventual iPod-esque iPad lineup.
But would introducing a new member to the iPad family (and feasibly, other sizes in the future) lead to one of the major problems plaguing the Android ecosystem — fragmentation? Based on the fairly simple transition developers faced updating their iPad apps for the Retina display — and before that, iPhone apps for the Retina display — it looks like fragmentation wouldn’t be a big issue.
“It seems like most developers were able to update their apps for Retina display within a fairly short period,” Rotman Epps said. “Apple devices have such a far reach, it’s worth it for developers to build into that platform even if it takes a little bit of extra effort.”
Zac White, iOS developer and co-founder of Velos Mobile, says that if Apple makes a wee tablet with the same pixel density as the iPhone 4S (which has a 960×640 resolution), current software wouldn’t have to change — today’s apps would just appear on different screen dimensions.
“If the resolution stays the same, there are virtually no modifications needed to have our apps ‘just work,’” White told Wired via email. However, if Apple introduces a new resolution, this would cause some developer headaches.
Even so, an iPad mini would only add, at most, a third screen size and resolution to the mix, which is still a lot less fragmentation than you get with Android, where “you literally get hundreds of permutations,” Epps said. And, indeed, designing elegant-looking apps for all Android devices can be a challenge for developers.
It would behoove Apple to start shipping its pint-sized tablet before the holidays. “If Apple misses this holiday, they’ve missed a huge opportunity because Amazon will certainly come out with its next-generation products, and Google will amp up marketing for its tablet,” Rotman Epps said. “Competition will only get tougher.”
A 7.85-inch iPad seemed crazy even only a few months ago. But now it seems Apple would be crazy not to release one.