So Was Steve Jobs Wrong About 7-inch Tablets?

November 15th, 2013

There’s a story today — which I will not link to — suggesting that the popularity of 7-inch tablets, and the iPad mini, at 7.85-inches, is proof positive that Steve Jobs was dead wrong about the usability of smaller tablets. The article also included some statistics that showed, in some cases, that larger tablets were more popular for certain makers, which seems a curious way to reinforce one’s argument.

But let’s go back to Jobs, who famously suggested that you’d need to sandpaper your fingers to use those small tablets. Understand he was talking about 7-inch widescreen versions, and this is of critical importance.

No matter. Rumors soon arose that Apple was readying a smaller tablet to compete with all that stuff from Amazon, Google (the Nexus line) and, naturally, Samsung. Stories reflected different form factors, but, near the release of the iPad mini, finally settled in close to the final 7.85-inch display size. So, therefore, Jobs must have been dead wrong, for why would Apple put money into developing a tablet that people didn’t want, or couldn’t use?

Now those of you who saw Philip Schiller demonstrate the iPad mini might recall how he smartly addressed the issue. You see, those 7-inch tablets are widescreen and thus, when tilted horizontally, you had very little vertical space to view your stuff. The iPad mini uses a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, same as the full-sized iPad. Thus you have far more usable screen real estate. Sure, widescreen videos might look better on the widescreen tablets, but just about everything else works better on the iPad mini. Making the screen resolution same as the larger iPad 2 — before the Retina display model came to be — means that the same content appears on the smaller model, only, of course, tinier. But not as tiny as on a 7-inch tablet.

The public bought into the argument, as did reviewers. The iPad mini took off fast, and supplies were constrained in the 2012 holiday season. That situation appears to be repeating itself this quarter with the somewhat late release of the iPad mini with Retina display. But the original model is still available for those who don’t think that an extra $100 is worth it for more pixels.

Now I suspect it’s possible that sales will skew more towards the iPad Air this quarter, in part because of constrained supplies of the iPad mini. The other is that the Air weighs just a pound, which makes it a far more convenient load to handle. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect for extended one-handed use compared to the iPad mini, which weighs about a quarter-pound less. From the reviews, I gather it depends, and I can see where a lot of people would prefer the more convenient form factor, and somewhat lower price, of the smaller model.

But suggesting the iPad mini isn’t usable, or that Steve Jobs was wrong to suggest the 7-inch form factor was bad, doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. No doubt the 7.85-inch screen came about as the result of testing different sizes and see what worked best. Other companies simply release tablets in every available size and hope customers will pick the right model, or any model. It’s about giving them a choice, or confusing them, depending on your point of view.

Besides, this isn’t to say that people don’t like those smaller tablets, or even phablets, which combine a smartphone with tablet-related functions at sizes above five inches. Clearly there is an audience for such products, though no single model outdoes Apple in sales. There are even rumors of larger iPhone form factors, and maybe even a super-sized iPad in the 12-inch range. But, as I said in yesterday’s column, a rumor isn’t a fact. It may even be true that Apple is testing all sorts of form factors for mobile gear to see what has the most potential. But testing and releasing to the public are very different, though perhaps some of those rumors are based on supply chain leaks involving prototypes.

What’s more, this doesn’t mean that Steve Jobs didn’t first say no before he green lit some of the companies most popular products. Consider his skepticism for the iPod, the iPhone and even the iPad over the years before his executives convinced him to take a chance. It seems clear from his management style that he expected members of his team, who were convinced they had a good idea, to do what was necessary to sell it to him. That might involve lots of shouting back and forth, but Apple clearly made the right decision in the end.

Sure, Tim Cook’s management style is reportedly far more subdued, though he’s clearly not afraid to fire people, and it does seem that Apple’s recent products are well crafted and are achieving much success in the marketplace. But don’t assume Apple got it right all the time with Steve Jobs at the helm. Don’t forget the Power Mac G4 Cube, or even the failed launch of MobileMe. That near-catastrophe made today’s iCloud glitches seem tame by comparison.

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6 Responses to “So Was Steve Jobs Wrong About 7-inch Tablets?”

  1. dana sutton says:

    I don’t think Steve was wrong about the size of tablets so much as about their weight. In a lot of ways I adore my first-gen. iPad, but I must admit that its weight makes it awkward and uncomfortable to carry around and to use as a book reader. I’m more than a bit jealous of the light weight and nonreflective screen of my wife’s Kindle, and I bet the weight factor as well as the lower price is a reason people are attracted to the Mini.

  2. MonkeyT says:

    You also have to remember the context of the original Jobs arguments: this was the not long after the launch of the original iPad, when competitors were trying to distinguish themselves in any way possible, and critics were asking him why the iPad hadn’t gone smaller since the iPhone was proving to be a large success. In general, while the original iPad was being developed (and tested) the world at large was not well versed in using a touch screen. iPhones were growing very popular, but that audience grew from the top down: hardcore techies and fans spreading into to novice Apple users. The general consumer audience the iPad was shooting for was just beginning to learn how to use a touchscreen – and having a larger screen with larger buttons and touch targets was less intimidating than having a small screen, particularly for the aging boomer population, who were largely a Windows fan base who were resistant to apple devices to begin with. The initial version of the iPad was a training device, and when it became popular, the audience quickly gained confidence with this new way of interacting with their machines. By the time the question of smaller iPads became an issue, the world had a moderately large, well-seasoned audience who were familiar with touch devices – and far less intimidated by the slightly higher manual dexterity needed to work with a smaller screen.

  3. immovableobject says:

    Apple started out selling 4″ touchscreen devices (iPhone and iPod Touch), so clearly it knows that apps can be designed for small screens. The original iOS API’s were designed to aid and encourage to use of standard methods of navigation and selection, given the specific constraints of screen size.

    For the 10″ diagonal iPod, Apple realized that simply scaling up phone apps would provide a poor user experience, so they developed and promoted an enhanced set of API’s and UI guidelines that take full advantage of the significant increase in screen area.

    A hypothetical 7″ (widescreen in landscape) iPad would require yet another set of APi’s as neither iPhone or iPad apps would run optimally on such a beast. This would fragment the development process, adding additional burden to developers. And the apps would still suffer in comparison to those of a full sized iPad.

    Apple decided that an 8″ (4:3 aspect ratio) mini is about as small as is practical for running standard iPad apps. It has significantly more screen area than the 7″ devices that Steve Jobs dismissed. I suspect that for people with fat fingers and/or poor eyesight, the mini might still be too cramped for some apps to be used easily. But at least for those willing to make the tradeoff, the mini provides an option.

  4. DaveD says:

    Another good article putting what Steve Jobs said in the proper context.

    Apple does a lot of research and development and it would be quite obvious to anyone with some intelligence that many screen sizes were on the table. Creating the first iPad is all about delivering the best user experience for content consumption and creation. Apple chose a 9.7-inch display size. Large enough for readability, easy and small enough for a child to use.

    Apple has continued to refine the iPad while creating a smaller, easier-to-carry-around tablet form like a smaller paperback book instead of the larger hard cover version. The user experience may not be as good as the big iPad, but still good.

  5. SteveS says:

    As others have mentioned, Steve Jobs’ comments need to be taken into context. At the time these comments were made, competitors were coming out with 7″ devices with $499 price tags. On that comparison, most would choose the 9.7″ tablet.

    Jobs did make the point about shaving down your finger, etc. in order to work with 7″ displays and I think he was generally wrong about that. Especially considering the fact that Apple’s iPhones were 3.5″ devices at the time. Apple’s 7.85″ 4:3 display is bigger than the common 7″ 16:9 display. From my perspective, the iPad Mini is a bit small for many common tablet tasks.

    However, the Android market didn’t really have to deal with the shrink down issue at all as most of the Android applications available for their tablets are essentially just blown up phone apps.

    7″ tablets are better essentially for one purpose… dedicated e-book readers. Outside of that, a 7″ tablet is a compromised experience.

    Finally, in terms of popularity, we can look at 7″ vs. 10″ tablets and try to make the determination that the 7″ tablet is more popular. However, I’d argue that 7″ tablets are more popular because they cost less. Cheaper is always more popular in terms of volume shipment metrics. The problem is, few are willing to acknowledge they chose a 7″ tablet because they’re cheap. So, you’ll never really get the true rationale for their choice.

  6. SteveS: if you’re right, 7″ is a niche if a big one – and may equate to pretty big numbers of devices, but not much by way of sales for apps. I haven’t seen figures for earnings for Android apps, but iOS developers collectively have done pretty well. Some interesting comparisons here:

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