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So Was Steve Jobs Wrong About 7-inch Tablets?

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.