The latest rumors have it that Apple will hold a media event later this month to unleash a smaller iPad, scheduled to ship no later than early November. If true, it would make the so-called iPad mini a potential hot ticket for the holiday season.
There's yet a new published report, from the Wall Street Journal, indicating the production ramp-up began in September, again suggesting an October media event, with the smaller iPad showing up in stores the following week.
Now it's one thing for rumors to appear in a site devoted to such material, but when a mainstream newspaper is the source for the information, you have to at least take it seriously. Maybe not necessarily to the bank, but there have been quite enough hints and published prototype photos that make the prospect of a smaller iPad just plain logical.
Besides, it would seem that the market is more than ready for a smaller tablet, witness the apparent success of the 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire, and the move by other companies, including Google and Barnes & Noble, into a market segment where they expect to have a clear path to great sales.
Even though Steve Jobs, in one of his famous bouts of exaggeration, spoke of the need for sandpapering your fingers to use a smaller tablet, there are reasons why an iPad mini -- or whatever it's going to be called -- would succeed. Consider that the 9.7-inch iPad is too large and too heavy for comfortable one-handed use. Some people want tablets for reading books and magazines and watching movies. A smaller iPad would be tailor-made for this purpose, and the rumored 7.85-inch form factor, with a 4:3 aspect ratio, would offer more screen real estate than the 7-inch widescreen models that have proliferated in the past year or so.
The other key reason is price. A 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, with 16GB of storage, sells for just $199. Apple is going to feel the pressure to be competitive. Sure, Amazon charges you $15 more to remove the ads, but they still don't expect to make much of a profit from those sales. Kindles are meant as front ends for Amazon's content. In the same way that printer makers sell hardware for little or no profit, and expect to make it up on the sale of ink and toner, Amazon wants you to buy products and services on a Kindle. If you spend enough money, the exercise in hardware making would make business sense.
Reports about iPad mini pricing are all over the place. Some suggest $249 for a 16GB version, somewhat of a premium to be sure, but not so much as to deter sales, particularly from people who are already invested in Apple's ecosystem. I suppose $299 would work, but a higher price might just be too high for fast adoption of the smaller iPad.
However, an iPad has advantages over a Kindle and other smaller tablets. In addition to having far more apps, not to mention a superior interface and user experience, Apple doesn't keep you from buying content from Amazon. Whether you just use Safari, or download the Kindle eBook app, an iPad is also a profit center for Amazon.
As you might expect, so-called industry analysts are already predicting doom and gloom for Apple. They are late to the party, and the other companies are already well entrenched. But it is not at all certain that 7-inch tablets have really gained a decent market share compared to the iPad. And even if that share is growing, a little brother (or sister) to the iPad may be a shrewd marketing move, particularly for existing Apple customers who want a more portable second device.
When it comes to new customers, the glow of the iPad may just be sufficient to grab sales of the mini version, even if it costs somewhat more that competing tablets. Of course, nothing stops people from buying on price and only price, and just coping with a lesser user experience.
I won't even begin to make predictions as to how a smaller iPad will fare in the marketplace. While most of the tech media seems to believe there will be such a beast, Macworld's Dan Moren remains skeptical. If it happens, however, and if Apple keeps the price reasonably low, success may be assured.
Meantime, it's interesting to discover how the dream of a handheld computer was first expressed by Apple. Just the other day, a lost quote appeared from a speech Steve Jobs gave in 1983 at the Center for Design innovation. During a question-and-answer session, Jobs described his dream of a "computer in a book," which is just one step from a tablet.
Here's what he said:
Apple’s strategy is really simple. What we want to do is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes. That’s what we want to do and we want to do it this decade. And we really want to do it with a radio link in it so you don’t have to hook up to anything and you’re in communication with all of these larger databases and other computers.
They also depicted tablets on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in the cult series "Star Trek: The Next Generation," but that show didn't debut until four years later. While some might dispute the image of a computer in a book as a harbinger of the PC's future, it's clear what Jobs meant. He may have been a couple of decades off, but the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010 did ultimately vindicate his vision.
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