Will the iPad mini Become the Mainstream iPad?

November 16th, 2012

Early sales reports are heralding a possible bang-up quarter for Apple, with stellar sales of the iPhone 5, the iPad and, of course, the iPad mini. But if you can believe what Steve Jobs said about the value of a smaller tablet, you might just wonder why the latter exists at all.

But it’s not about Jobs exaggerating about the need to sandpaper your fingers to use one. For many users, the iPad mini is the perfect tablet. Let’s recall how Apple VP Phil Schiller touted the iPad mini’s larger screen, offering roughly a third more screen real estate than the those 7-inch tablets from the likes of Amazon and Google.

You see, most other small tablets I know about are widescreen; Apple uses the standard 4:3 aspect ratio. While widescreens are great for watching movies, they aren’t so great for other content, especially in the horizontal orientation. Schiller made the point crystal clear during his presentation at the October Apple event announcing the iPad mini, where one of those other tablets could barely display the header of a Web page horizontally, while the iPad mini gave you a decent (though not exceptional) amount of actual content without endless scrolling.

The big problem with the full sized iPad is that it may just be too large for many of you. You cannot imagine holding the unit in one hand for very long, which can make book reading a chore. It’s a poor fit for anything but a real large purse, and carrying one on public transportation is extremely awkward. Yes, you may cherish the larger screen real estate, but Apple needs to find a way to make it lighter and thinner.

Here the iPad mini is actually near as light or lighter than the 7-inch tablets, so it’s real easy to handle. By supporting the same apps as the larger iPad, with the same aspect ratio, there are no display issues to confront. It just works, and it’s more flexible than its larger sibling.

Although the $499 starting price for the iPad is actually cheaper than many expected before it was introduced, these days that’s a bit high, since so many tablets are cheaper. Yes, many hoped the iPad mini would come in for less than $329, since you can get tablets from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google and others for $199 or even less. But it’s not so steep a climb as to put off customers, or at least that’s how it seems so far.

This isn’t to say that Apple didn’t make some sacrifices to get the product out. It may well be that icons and text are a tad too small for some, because Apple didn’t make any iOS changes that reflect the new design. The display, while quite good, isn’t Retina, which means text isn’t quite as razor-sharp, though you will probably not notice a severe difference unless you put the two side by side.

Why no Retina display? It may have been a matter of time to market, component costs, and getting sufficient quantities. I do not necessarily believe in the common conspiracy theory that Apple will hold off a feature, hoping to make a bundle on that feature and get you to upgrade to the next version. It’s not as if millions of iPad mini owners will suddenly rush to its successor when it comes out, as expected, in 2013.

For now, it seems that the iPad mini is expanding the market, not taking much business from the regular iPad. On the long haul, however, I expect that the combination of affordability, usability and packaging will draw more and more users to the iPad mini. This will be particularly true when there is a Retina display and when or if the iOS is better optimized for a smaller device.

In the next year or two, we’ll look at the iPad mini as a sea change. It’s not just another market niche for Apple, but the possible future of general purpose tablets. Sure, the larger iPad will be around for quite a while yet, and I do not expect to see loads of different sizes. That’s the approach taken by other tech companies that seem to believe that if you throw enough darts in the air at random, a few might reach a target. Apple is just not going to play that game.

As for me, neither iPad is a replacement for my iMac. I still want the large screen, the traditional keyboard and mouse, because I type and edit audio and words an awful lot. It’s possible I’ll adapt, maybe as I get older, and voice recognition capabilities make it possible to mostly give up on keyboards, except in places where I’d prefer not to make people believe I’m just talking to myself.

I also realize that some of you expect the iPad mini to continue to play second fiddle in Apple’s product line. Maybe now, but that will change faster than you think.

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