Finding a place for a 7.85-inch "mini" iPad
July 23, 2012
Over the past several days I’ve thought more about the place a smaller iPad would have in Apple’s lineup. I’ve been in the camp that says a 7.85-inch iPad doesn’t make sense, in part, because it does nothing better than the iPhone or existing iPad, making an iPad Mini a poor replacement. After giving the issue more thought, I realize I may have pulled the trigger on this judgmenet a little too easily. There may still be merit in the argument against an iPad Mini based on cost, but I’ll ignore that for now because I’d like to instead focus on where such a device might fit should it somehow reach production.
What we can learn from Apple’s existing lineup.
Unlike many other tech companies, Apple has a reasonably simplified lineup, where differences in a given category are often simply based around storage or display options, and portability is of course affected accordingly.
With Apple’s desktop lineup, a machine’s physical footprint is proportional to its capacity to crunch numbers. Effectively, you trade power for compact size, but there’s still a desktop for everyone. If you need an always-on machine, or simply need one with the maximum computing power Apple provides, the desktop lineup fits your bill.
The Macbook line is similar: the smaller you go, the more power you give up in CPU/GPU speed. Typically, you’re also limited by smaller storage options, and as of right now, in display quality.1 But the important thing to keep in mind is that the Macbook line offers a degree of portability. While you likely wouldn’t be moving around a desktop, the Macbook line is for the person who doesn’t have a single computing spot in her house, and expects to even use the computer away from home now and again.
The iPhone line is much simpler: storage is the kingpin, with display quality second.2 This is Apple’s take-everywhere device. It fits in your pocket, it lets you do many computing tasks in a pinch, but it’s not much of a replacement computer for anything else in Apple’s lineup.3 If you don’t need a phone, there’s always the iPod Touch.
The iPod line is pretty straightforward. The Classic is for those who need the greatest storage capacity, the Touch is for those who want a contract-less iPhone, and beyond that it’s down to portability, with the Nano offering a couple multimedia options, and the Shuffle offering gym-level simplicity.
The iPad is the curious beast in the lineup. Yes, it offers greater portability than even the Macbook Air, and will let Average Joe do everything he needs a computer to do. The only reason to get an 11-inch Air over the iPad is because you need legacy software that’s only available on OS X.4 Otherwise, the iPad offers a simpler operating system experience, cheaper software than what’s available for OS X and Windows, and greater flexibility in how you use the device. While the Macbook line offers excellent portability, the iPad ups the ante by giving you a form factor that’s more situationally relevent. Want to write a novel at the living room table? Grab your physical keyboard and prop the iPad up. Want to surf the web lying down on the couch? Easy peasy. Need to reference an online guide while fixing something around the house? Again, great form factor.
Apple’s argument is undoubtedly that most people could easily have one device from each lineup, and iCloud banks on the idea that people do have more than one Apple device and want to keep their data in sync.
So… two iPad form factors?
The problem with the notion that someone could theoretically own one device from each Apple category and derive considerable benefit is that it’s not true. It’s power users or tech enthusiasts who own several devices, not Average Joe. In fact, Average Joe owns a phone and computer at best, and the computer these days could be an iPad. And if Average Joe does own a notebook, it’s probably more along the lines of the Macbook Air than the Macbook Pro, because Average Joe doesn’t need a computer that’s particularly powerful. And that means notebook-toting Average Joe may not see the benefit of also buying an iPad. Apple, of course, wants to sell as much hardware as they can, so how to make up for the fact that the iPad is already likely cannibalizing some Macbook Air sales?
If an iPad Mini comes to be, it’s not a separate line so it’s not made to replace anything other than the existing iPad. Remember, Apple ideally wants to sell Average Joe one device from every category. People who argue a 7-inch tablet with Bluetooth earpiece could replace their phone are an extremely niche minority that Apple isn’t going to cater to. Those who decide to get an iPad over a Macbook are in a larger group, likely akin to those who decide to get a Macbook Air over a Mac Mini or iMac; the iPad folks who forego the Macbook aren’t replacing Macbook Pros, just as Macbook Air buyers aren’t foregoing Mac Pros.
It’s pretty clear many people are buying iPads instead of notebooks, but if the iPad only came in a 7.85-inch screen format, that likely wouldn’t be the case to the extent it is today. An iPad Mini won’t be an Air replacement. But for many people who are buying iPads who never anguished over maybe getting an Air instead, and who specifically want a tablet, an iPad Mini might fit the bill.5 That’s because these people might already have a notebook they can’t let go, and the current iPad form factor is simply too similar to what they have already.
Consider the proliferation of the 11-inch Air. Yes the iPad is more portable, but if you need a desktop OS for some reason, perhaps an iPad Mini offers a form factor that simply makes better sense for you.
After all, Apple is selling more Macbooks than desktops, and the Air is an extremely popular seller. The iPad may be a great complimentary device for those with 15-inch or even 13-inch Macbooks, but maybe not so great for those carrying a device with a screen a mere 1.3 inches bigger.
Put another way, the people buying iPads fit in one of two categories:
They already have a computer (desktop or notebook) but want a tablet form-factor for a subset of computing tasks.
They don’t have any computing tasks necesitating a desktop operating system, so are opting for the most flexible form factor available to serve as their computer, which just so happens to be a tablet.
To address the first category of users, by offering a 7.85-inch iPad, Apple is rounding out the iPad line so every Mac owner has a complimentary tablet device as an option. For some, that’s the current iPad. For others, a 7.85-inch iPad doesn’t have to be better at anything than the current iPad; maybe most 11-inch Air owners aren’t buying the iPad as is. To this group of people, Apple isn’t selling a tablet to replace their notebook, they’re selling a more portable device for when 11-inches (or 10) is overkill for a given task.
Those who fall in the second category will likely continue opting for the current iPad, because the larger screen size simply makes for a better form factor if the iPad is your only computer.
Yes, I’m coming around to the idea.
I didn’t merely replace my 17-inch Macbook with an iPad, I replaced it with an iPad and Mac Mini. The state of iOS has changed considerably since then, so fortunately I don’t need to to rely on the Mac Mini as much as I once did.6 But because I still need a desktop OS to handle certain tasks (even if the respective computer is headless and tasks are automated), I can’t give up the Mini entirely.
My current iPhone/iPad/Mac Mini setup is great for most every task I need to accomplish, but since dabbling with iOS development, I realize I could have a better setup. Right now I’m able to get away with using Splashtop Remote to access an iPhone emulator on my MAc Mini remotely, and switch over to Textastic to edit my code. It’s not ideal but it works. I can speed this process up by using my wife’s first-gen iPad as my dedicated Splashtop Remote machine, and then using my current-gen iPad to edit code.7
My current thinking is that if I stick with this code thing, I’ll hold out until the 11-inch Macbook Air goes retina. I’ll still need the Mac Mini to hold the bulk of my files since the storage on the Air is so limited, but this switch would make coding when away from home much easier. But I don’t want to forego the iPad entirely, because I can use it in places that I couldn’t use an Air.8
So if I decide to go through with a future Air purchase, I can see how replacing my iPad with an iPad Mini might make sense. The proposed 7.85-inch form factor is plenty large for content consumption, and so long as I can run all my existing iPad apps on an iPad Mini, there are only a handful of apps that I’ll still want to run on the iPad that may be affected by a smaller screen (like Paper). Everything else will either be transitioned to the Air, or should work fine on a slightly smaller screen.
But… it has to have a retina display.
I’m still not convinced a non-retina 7.85-inch iPad will sell. In my case, there’s no way I’m downgrading to a non-retina screen after using the iPhone 4S and current-generation iPad. That’s part of the reason I’m not about to consider buying an Air before a retina version is available.
I also still don’t buy the notion that Apple is going to release a new product without a retina display merely to keep costs down to capture the budget market. If I’m right and the potential market for a 7.85-inch iPad is driven not just on budget but on a preference for a smaller display than the current iPad, then people will not be happy that an iPad Mini has sub-par display quality. These people want a smaller screen, not a comparatively poor viewing experience.
Think about it: Grandma loves the iPad because eBooks look awesome, but wish it were smaller so she could handle it better in one hand. Apple comes out with an iPad Mini which fits the bill, but eBooks no longer look awesome on it. Which device, if any, is Grandma going to buy? Her decision is a no-brainer if the iPad Mini has a retina display, but if it doesn’t, she might just as easily buy a competitor’s product that is just as small, has a display that’s comparable, and is cheaper.
For those Macbook Air owners out there, a compelling feature of a smaller iPad is a retina display, especially since the Air doesn’t offer it yet. I’d argue that a smaller screen in itself is not enough to convince these folks to buy a tablet, in light of the fact that the larger iPad does offer this feature. If anything, pixelation on a smaller screen is only more annoying, since you’re already losing a degree of interface accessibility by shrinking things down.
Does an iPad Mini makes a little more sense than I thought it did? It makes more sense than it would have in 2010 when the original iPad was unveiled. Back then, the iPad was already refered to by some detractors as nothing more than a large iPhone. But Apple showed that a 9.7-inch tablet was not only better than an iPhone for everyday computing tasks, but that a 9.7-inch tablet could devastate the netbook market and seriously impact the general notebook market as well. Apple couldn’t have done that nearly as well with a 7.85-inch device.
But times have changed. Tablets are in. And I’ll concede maybe there’s room for a smaller iPad now. But for that to be successful it needs to be just as gorgeous as the iPad is today, and that means sticking to a retina display.
This is on account of the Retina Macbook Pro, currently only being offered in a 15-inch display. ↩
I don’t believe this will stay the case, as the iPhone 3GS will eventually disappear from the lineup, at which point I expect all iPhones to sport a retina display. ↩
Consider Mobile Safari alone. Yes, it works admirably, but it’s not the type of experience you want to rely on when surfing the web for hours. ↩
Or Windows, or Linux, or whatever else you want to dual-boot or run virtually. ↩
A comment to my last post on an iPad Mini not making sense pointed out that the iPad was recently approved by airlines for charting. While pilots love the iPad for this purpose, many wish the iPad were slightly smaller, as it would increase mounting options in cockpits. These pilots never considered using a notebook computer instead - they specifically need a tablet. ↩
iCloud and iTunes Match are huge contributors to this. Also, over-the-air iOS updates. ↩
If Splashtop Remote didn’t require me to reconnect every time I switched back to it, a second iPad wouldn’t be much of an advantage. However, having to reconnect whenever I switch back to Splashtop Remote means dealing with annoying lag time. Ideally, a future version of Splashtop Remote would maintain a connect for, say, five or ten minutes before timing out. ↩
My job, for example, has a no-personal-computer policy in the office. They don’t consider tablets computers, however, so bringing the iPad in is fine. ↩