The tablet market — specifically, the 7-inch tablet market — got a jolt of excitement last month when Google debuted the Nexus 7, an affordable touchscreen device that also happens to be the best 7-inch tablet ever made. Now that the initial commotion has calmed a bit, many are casting their eyes toward Apple, wondering if (some say when) it’ll debut a smaller iPad to compete directly with 7-inch devices like the new Nexus.
Rumors about a 7-inch Apple tablet have circulated since even before the first iPad was unveiled. However, the Nexus 7 news has risen the conversation to new levels. First a financial analyst speculated Apple would debut a 7.8-inch iPad priced at $299, then both Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal independently reported Apple was planning an “iPad Mini” for release during the 2012 holiday season, attributing to anonymous sources.
The reports sync up with rumors earlier in the year, purportedly from Apple’s Asian suppliers, who were gearing up for a fall launch of a smaller-screen iPad.
So it’s looking more likely than ever that Apple will release some kind of iPad Junior later this year. While all this buzz could be a kind of fear campaign aimed at blunting the launch of the Nexus 7 and whatever follow-up to the Kindle Fire that’s no doubt in the works, the weight so many publications is pushing the existence of a li’l iPad strongly into the “likely” pile.
An iPad Mini is a bad idea, though. For developers more than users, but the biggest loser will ultimately be Apple. A 7-inch iPad dilutes what the iPad is — the tablet all competing designs are held against — and is something Steve Jobs probably would never have approved.
The Folly of Seven
When Jobs unveiled the original iPad, he began by explaining that any device aiming to fill the gap between smartphones and laptops needed to be better at some key abilities: browsing the web, reading and writing email, reading ebooks and watching videos among them. He famously brought up netbooks, immediately dismissing them as inferior for in all those respects.
That set the stage, and the standard, for the iPad, which in turn set the expectation for all tablets that followed. But a 7-inch tablet is demonstrably inferior to the 10-inch experience in that same contest. The only benefit is portability, and Jobs himself said tablets with 7-inch screens were “dead on arrival” (although he was notorious for reversing himself, as his successor Tim Cook has said).
Jobs is no longer with us, of course, and the market has since seen the introduction of the Kindle Fire, which sold well during the holiday season (though excitement for it has appeared to have slowed down considerably since). Still, the case against a smaller iPad still stands, for the same reason Apple never made a netbook: it’s not better at anything.
From a user standpoint, the 7-inch screen is simply less: less immersive for videos and photos, less room for readers and email, and less stuff you can have on the screen overall. It’s also less mass to carry around with you (it’s only advantage, apart from cost), though judging from the number of iPads I see on the subway every day, that’s never been much of a disadvantage for most people.
For developers, things get even worse. Now they’ll have to redesign their iOS apps for another screen size. Since Apple would likely simply use the same resolution as its previous iPads, this won’t be too burdensome, but it does mean they’ll have to update and support that implementation of their app as if it were new — and for longer than they probably thought.
The iPad Classic
But the party who loses the most in a world with a 7-inch iPad is Apple itself. While there’s virtually no question it’ll sell the product hand over fist, it would represent a cheapening of what Apple stands for.
As Jobs once said, Apple is first about building the best computers possible, and making a profit second. While that might sound like a mere Kool-Aid platitude, if you examine Apple’s actions, it’s quite accurate. Eschewing netbooks, replacing the iPod Mini with the iPod Nano, and its end-to-end approach to manufacturing — Apple has always been more concerned about providing customers with a certain experience than things like market share.
The iPad right now is one of those experiences. For both Apple’s customers and its competitors, it’s the tablet you aspire to. Throw a 7-inch iPad in there, and it becomes something else: the iPad Classic. It splits the tablet market in two, and it makes a mockery of the 10-inch iPad’s retina display by suggesting to tablet customers they can get along without one.
More importantly, a 7-inch tablet sees Apple play the role of follower rather than leader. It’s no exaggeration to say Apple created the tablet market as it exists today, and the company continues to lead in other areas, such as with the recent release of the retina MacBook Pro. Releasing a 7-inch iPad essentially cedes the leadership role in the category to Amazon and Google.
Apple Scare Tactics?
That’s why I hope all this chatter about a 7-inch iPad is simply some kind of Apple scare campaign. It feels like a mere grab for market share — similar to when Apple threw a video camera into the fifth-generation iPod Nano. That was a naked grab to capitalize on the craze surrounding the Flip camera, which really wasn’t much of a market after all.
Things are different this time: Smaller-size tablets are a real market, given their popularity. However, that market is characterized by cut-price device from companies desperate to establish market share for their platforms.
Apple’s position is so strong that it doesn’t need to play that game. Sure, it could get into the muck with those guys and probably sell tons more devices. But it would herald a cheapening of the iPad brand that would be impossible to recover from. Because the thousands who will find iPad Minis under Christmas trees this holiday really wanted something bigger.