Over the past couple days, the talk of the town has been on a forthcoming 7-inch iPad. The rumour itself is nothing new, thanks in part to the misconception people have that just because everyone else is doing it, Apple has to, too. They forget that despite Apple only having one iPad form factor (9.7″), Apple has effectively become the tablet market. Nevertheless, the argument of late is that Apple wants to capture the low-end tablet market. It’s not like Apple hasn’t done this before, argue folks like Renee Ritchie:
Yet there’s that iPod mini/iPod nano precedent, and the $999 11 inch MacBook Air which is proving incredibly hard for competitors to match in the “ultrabook” space.
The difference between the iPad and the iPod/Air is that there was demand for smaller devices. The display on the iPod is simplistic – you only need a small amount of information, and that information can easily be displayed on a smaller screen. As long as storage is adequate for your mobile music library, why wouldn’t you want a smaller music player? It was therefore logical to shrink down the iPod into the smallest size storage options allowed. There’s even a “headless” iPod thanks to the Shuffle, proving that the display isn’t even necessary for a lot of users.
The Air follows similar logic. Why would a user not want a smaller notebook computer if power/performance isn’t a mitigating factor? The dirth of sub-notebooks, netbooks, ultrabooks, et al prove that people don’t care so much about a larger display as long as they’re still able to get work done. With the Air, Apple brought to market a compact notebook computer that didn’t forego much computing power.
As for the iPad, moving down to 7″ is about as smart a move as Apple making a 9″ Air. Could they do it? Sure, technically it’s within Apple’s power. But why would they? The argument of Apple trying to capture low-end buyers dismisses the fact that there’s already a pretty cheap iPad available in the iPad 2, and it doesn’t compromise the user’s experience outside the lack of retina graphics.
A 7″ iPad, or more accurately what people are expecting to be a 7.85″ iPad, would impact the viewing experience customers have with Apple’s tablet to date. The 7″ form factor is great for things like eBooks, because most people are already familiar with reading text in printed books that are even smaller. But the iPad isn’t just an eBook reader, it’s a modern-day computer. Apple released the 9.7″ iPad in 2010 after what was presumably a lot of testing, deciding that 9.7″ was the smallest possible without compromising the user’s experience. Why now dismiss that testing merely to release an iPad a hundred dollars cheaper to capture a niche market of people who want an iPad but don’t want to spend $400?
The price is another issue, with some folks claiming Apple can release a $200 7″ iPad. Apparently, they’re ignoring the fact that the 3.5″ iPod Touch starts at $200 and ends at $400 w/64 GB of storage. There’s not really much room here for a 7″ iPad, unless Apple is willing to significantly drop the price of the Touch, too. And why would they do that just to “capture” the niche market that is 7″ tablets? That market can’t mean that much for Apple, who already dominates the tablet space.
John Gruber thinks a smaller iPad will utilize a non-retina display:
Displays aren’t manufactured at their finished size; rather, they’re made on big sheets, and then cut to size. I believe the iPad Mini (or whatever it’s going to be called) uses the same display as the iPhone 3GS. So instead of cutting these sheets into 3.5-inch 480 × 320 displays for the iPhone 3GS, they’ll cut them into 7.85-inch 1024 × 768 displays for the smaller iPad.
There’s still the aforementioned issue of pricing versus the iPod Touch, but putting that aside for the moment, there’s still the issue of Apple’s direction regarding retina displays. More specifically, Apple is moving toward retina displays in their products, not away. The non-retina options in the iPhone and iPad line are legacy products that Apple kept around for a generation to hook budget buyers. It seems like a faulty assumption that Apple will continue releasing non-retina iPhones and iPads in the future. After all, the price of retina displays will only drop moving forward, and since Apple is seriously pitching retina displays as a fundamental selling point, why dismiss that merely to release a cheaper device? Apple is about quality and presentation, and non-retina displays are simply not good quality and don’t present well next to a comparable retina device. If anything, Apple is going to phase out non-retina iPhones and iPads, not create a new iOS form factor whose display looks worse than what the other iOS form factors offer.
Of course, the biggest argument against 7″ is what role the device would fill, which some pundits have focused on since these mini-iPad rumours began. Such a device is too big to fit in your pocket (making it a poor mobile mp3/media player), and the two inches it gives up from the iPad makes it less of a notebook replacement thanks to a compromised UI. In other words, it does nothing better, and everything worse.
If anything, come this fall, why wouldn’t Apple sooner drop the iPad 2 another $100?