The “iPad Nano:” Does A Smaller iPad Make Sense?

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Although the new iPad announcement is behind us, the inexhaustible rumor mill keeps tossing crazy notions our way. Chief among them, for this week at least, is this morning’s rumor concerning a 7.85-inch, slim-bezel display that could maybe-possibly-someday find its way into an “iPad Mini” of sorts. Would this be a wise (or likely) move from the tablet leader? Let’s speculate. Maybe wildly, but also safely.

Pixel Envy

Steve Jobs’ opinion of the 7-inch tablet was made abundantly clear on an Apple quarterly-earnings call in October 2010. In a multi-point rebuttal to the smaller iPad challengers then poised to enter the market, Jobs said that the smaller form factor, just 45% as large as the iPad’s 9.7-inch display, “isn’t sufficient to create great tablet apps,” and that “while one could increase the resolution to make up some of the difference, it is meaningless unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one-quarter of their present size.”

Well. No mistaking that attitude. And given the reverence Jobs’ name is (rightly) afforded both within and outside Apple’s campus, it seems unlikely that Tim Cook & Co. would choose to openly defy such a recently-espoused philosophy.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say we’re Apple. What are some reasons we might want to enter the smaller tablet space? At the moment, I can think of only one: diversification of our product line to compete more directly against smaller entrants like the Kindle Fire.

Here’s the thing, though: the market is so young, it’s very difficult to determine why people are buying what they are at this point. So there’s no clear way of knowing what’s fueling the fairly robust adoption rate of the Kindle Fire: is it that people want a smaller tablet, or is it because it provides an iPad-like experience at a smaller size and for a lower price? Is it just because of the Kindle brand name? Would it be selling at the same rate if it were a 10-inch device? Better? Worse? This kind of information is critical to understanding a market, and it’s why there are whole industries built around data aggregation.

data

Not that Data. But data aggregators may wear similar headgear.

Let’s also remember that Apple is a company that has always preferred the high-margin space, eschewing pennies-on-the-dollar profits for larger returns on more expensive products. Discussing the similar question of whether Apple would one day enter the netbook space, Jobs said on another earnings call in 2008, “We don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk.”

How long have people been speculating about the “iPhone Nano?” Forever. Apple should get a cheap iPhone out there to sell in volume and capture more marketshare is the sentiment that tends to surface every time a new iPhone announcement is on the horizon. But when the new one drops, it’s always the same story: the new iPhone is the blockbuster, and last year’s beater -still an immensely popular device- is bumped down a Benjamin or so to become the “budget option,” where it sells like mad. And guess what’s been happening in the iPad space? If you answered “the exact same thing,” give yourself a gumdrop. The base-model iPad 2 is already down a hundred bucks to $399 on Apple.com.

Portability is Paramount

So, we can safely say that if Apple’s going to split from its traditional way of doing business, it needs a good reason. A 7- or 8-inch iPad, then, has to be able to do something better than its full-sized counterpart, to avoid becoming the “netbook of tablets.” A quick look at some metrics we use in device reviews, along with a dash of speculative generalization, paints a somewhat bleak picture.

A smaller device means a smaller display. As Steve Jobs noted, this can be compensated for by increasing resolution, but the fact remains that customers are afforded half as much usable physical area as a 10-inch device. So ten-finger typing, for example, is harder to do. That also applies to media consumption: few people prefer watching video or browsing the web on a smaller device. Finally, smaller hardware also means a smaller battery, leading to reduced endurance.

sad galaxy tab

“Reduced endurance” is one of those things no one wants to hear.

(Image source geek.com)

Ultimately, the only clear advantage that the “junior” form factor offers is portability. Smaller tablets are easier to slip in and out of bags; some of the thinner, tapered designs can even be pocketed. One-handed use is easier, and they’re often lighter. That’s … about it.

Is the trade-off worth it? Is portability enough of a perk in the face of the disadvantages? It’s hard to say. As noted above, the tablet market is so new that we’re just now beginning to see some trends emerging, and only the most basic are predictable. Portability is what puts the “mobile” in “mobile technology,” though, so it’s obviously important. In fact, for people like me, it’s more important than anything else. If Apple announced plans to offer a 7-inch iPad tomorrow, I’d be waiting in line already. The increased portability would be more than enough to compensate for the compromises. That’s me, though. Am I a good barometer for the rest of the consumer market? I don’t know. Probably not. Remember, I bought an HP TouchPad at full retail price; I’m a weirdo.

Let’s also keep in mind that the Steve Jobs quote slamming 7-inchers was from October 2010. Smaller tablets made up the bulk of the competition then poised to attack Apple’s dominance, so of course he was going to come up with a slew of points undermining that form factor. Since then, the market has matured slightly: we’ve seen players leave the scene and others emerge, and we’ve gotten a taste of what sticks and what doesn’t. Devices like the B&N Nook and Kindle Fire, and to a lesser extent, the smaller Galaxy Tab series, have confirmed the relevance of the 7- and 8-inch tablet sector. As the “post-PC era” presses forward and tablets become increasingly relevant, Apple may have no choice but to start competing in the sub-10-inch space.

Apple Will Fire When It Is G-D Good and Ready

I think it more likely than not that we’ll eventually see an “iPad 7” from Apple. I don’t think that will be in 2012, though. Remember that the first rumors of a Retina display on an iPad started swirling even before the iPad 2 launched; it seems to take Apple a while to go from ordering display components to integrating them into new designs (and given the amount of innovation required for the latest iPad’s display, that’s no surprise). Plus, announcing such a product anytime in the next nine months would very likely cannibalize sales of the existing iPads. Apple’s not known for making stupid business decisions, so if we’re going to see such a thing, we’d better settle in for a long wait.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!