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Revisiting the iPad mini Myth

If you can believe some of the published reports, Apple is on the verge of releasing a smaller version of the iPad, supposedly to cater to a different user base, or at least address the needs of customers who can’t afford $399 for the iPad 2, or a starting price of $499 for the third-generation model. But is that a real possibility?

According to some published rumors, Apple has been sampling displays for smaller iPads for quite a while now, so it’s only inevitable that one of these products goes into production. Or at least that’s the theory.

The facts may be otherwise. Even if those reports are correct, Apple will routinely test all sorts of products and possible model configurations. Testing guarantees nothing. Loads of prototypes may be discarded before a final version is approved. At the same time, Steve Jobs once made a huge deal about the lack of usability of a 7-inch tablet, which is a common size used by Apple’s competitors. The things your fingers can do comfortably on a 9.7-inch display become very difficult when you only have 40% of the available real estate. And, yes, I realize a 7-inch tablet is a lot easier to carry with one hand.

Yes, the 3.5-inch iPhone lets you do amazing things for its size, but a tablet is meant as a far more flexible device. You are, after all, expected to use it to replace a regular personal computer under many situations. A smaller tablet may suit for reading books, or maybe for some games, but it’s not a general purpose mobile computer. Apple isn’t selling such a gadget.

Sure, Apple has denigrated a product or product category, only to come up with a solution a few months or years later. Consider how Steve Jobs lambasted the wireless handset industry; that is, until Apple found a solution with the iPhone. The Mac mini arrived only weeks after Apple executives said they wouldn’t build a cheap Mac to compete with entry-level PC boxes, because such computers were junk. But obviously the Mac mini was meant to exist in a market segment a step up from what Apple regarded as junk.

So I suppose it’s always possible that Apple will see a need for a smaller tablet, and fill that need. Recent rumors suggest 7.85 inches, because such a tablet can comfortably display the same number of pixels as the current iPad 2, with a pixel size close to the original iPhones, and thus iOS developers wouldn’t have to make custom versions of their apps. Well, maybe they’re right.

But Apple is also selling as many new iPads as they can make. Even when production matches demand — as it will in maybe a few more weeks — that doesn’t mean there will be a need for other sizes.

It’s also true that Apple doesn’t live in the same universe as other tech companies. A Dell or HP or a Samsung will build loads of different models, in all sizes, expecting success from sheer volume alone.

Of course building too many models, and releasing them too often, only confuses the customer. You want the latest and greatest Android smartphone or tablet? Well, you can hurry on over to your favorite dealer, buy one today, and find that it’s obsolete tomorrow. I gather HTC is trying to contain model proliferation, but that leaves loads of companies who still don’t get it.

Some suggest that Apple has too few models, and doesn’t reach all possible markets. Aside from building custom gear for everyone, it would be impossible to meet every conceivable dream and desire. Apple’s success is built on creating products in markets where they can make a difference, and with a very few configurations that appear to offer the best value to customers. In exchange, they have become the number one tech company on the planet, and the most valuable company of any size in terms of market cap. Clearly Apple’s strategy has succeeded.

That doesn’t mean that there will never be a smaller iPad, or an iPad mini if you will. It may well be that Apple will see other companies selling loads of smaller tablets over time, or see a market where a smaller form factor has potential. Maybe a smaller tablet, meant to dock with a TV via AirPlay and an Apple TV, would be suitable for gaming, and deliver a decent book reading experience too when you’re relaxing in that easy chair or sofa. Maybe a souped up iPod touch will be the answer.

If iPad sales were to flatten or decline, it’s a sure thing Apple will consider other possibilities, and one of those possibilities might be the smaller version. But I do not pretend to have any inside information about an iPad mini, or even an Apple connected TV for that matter, even though rumors persist that such a beast will see the light of day later this year or early in 2013. As far as a larger iPhone is concerned, there’s a limit to how big a smartphone can get before it becomes ungainly and can’t be easily carried in a normal-sized shirt or pants pocket.

When and if Apple delivers a different sized iPad, you’ll see the online chatter increase, and mainstream journalists will begin to present reports from alleged sources inside Apple. Apple may even pull a “one more thing” stunt at a future media event. You haven’t seen those in quite a while, but color me skeptical.