Let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a spell. What if there is no iPad mini/iPad Air/iPad nano/whatever it’s called now? What if Steve Jobs’ original sentiment towards 7-inch tablets holds true? What then? What is the October 23 event all about if that’s the case?
The October 23 event invitation sent out by Apple this morning bears the tagline: “We’ve got a little more to show you…”. Apple invites always bear clues to what’s going to be announced because — while it doesn’t like responding to it — the company loves to create speculation. So from the use of the word “little” in the event tagline, we can assume we’re going to see something from the smaller end of the product spectrum.
Based on the speculation swirling around a 7-inch iPad, the collective gadget mind immediately jumped to the event as the launchpad for the iPad mini, but not so fast there, partner. Apple have just said expect something smaller is coming, not necessarily an iPad.
What if the event is just to launch some new Mac products? We’re now hearing convincing reports, about a week out from the event, that the Retina MacBook Pro will come out in a 13-inch form factor, and there’s even speculation that a new Mac Mini is coming based on the product’s annual refresh cycle. So if it’s just going to be new laptops and a new Mac Mini, why did our minds jump immediately to the iPad mini?
Well, ever since there has been an iPad, there has been an iPad mini rumour. Every year leaks and speculation mounted that a smaller version of the iPad was coming, but events passed and the smaller device wasn’t even mentioned. Then came Steve.
During his time with the company, Steve Jobs said that Apple would never make a 7-inch tablet because of how obnoxious it would be to use and because of a lower demand for such a form factor. Here’s what he had to say a few years ago when Android first started to become a thing on tablets:
Almost all of [the tablets set for release in the coming months] use 7-inch screens. First, it appears to be only a handful of credible entrants and not an avalanche. Second, almost all of them use 7-inch screens as compared to the iPad’s 10-inch screen. One naturally thinks that a 7 inch screen would offer 70 per cent of the benefits of a 10 inch screen, but unfortunately, this is far from the truth.
The screen measurements are diagonal, so that a 7 inch screen is only 45% as large as iPad’s 10-inch screen. You heard me right, just 45% as large. If you take an iPad and hold it upright in portrait view and draw an imaginary horizontal line halfway down that screen, the screens on 7-inch tablets are a bit smaller than the bottom half of the iPad display. This [7-inch] size isn’t sufficient to create great tablet apps in our opinion.
While one could increase the resolution of the display to make up for some of the difference, it is meaningless unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user could sand their fingers to around 1/4 of their present size.
Apple has done extensive user testing on touch interfaces over many years, and we understand this stuff. There are clear limits of hour close you can physically place elements on the touchscreen before users cannot reliably tap, flick or pinch them. This is one of the key reasons we think the 10-inch screen is the minimum size required to create meaningful apps for tablets.
Every tablet user is also a smartphone user. No tablet can compete with the mobility of a smartphone. Its ease of fitting into your pocket or purse, its unobtrusiveness when used in a crowd. Given that all tablet users will already have a smartphone in their pockets, giving up precious display area to put a tablet in their pocket is clearly the wrong trade-off.
The seven inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with an iPad.
To go against Steve’s wishes and release the iPad mini would signal a huge departure from the business plan the co-founder prepared for the company before his demise. Furthermore, the new iPod Touch has just been priced at $329 (32GB) and $439 (64GB) respectively. Why, then would Apple go and cannibalise its own new products with the iPad mini? It makes approximately zero sense.
So with all of this to go on, why do we still have 7-inch tablets on the brain? Well, that’s as easy as blaming Google and Asus.
The Nexus 7 came out to huge fanfare a few months ago. It’s small, beautiful, thin and functional, and it shows that 7-inches is something that people want. It’s an awesome corner of the tablet market Google and Asus have carved out for themselves, so naturally, if Google does something, Apple has to do it too, right? Wrong.
Apple almost never directly competes with Google. As we saw from the slightly underspecced iPhone 4S when it was launched, Apple doesn’t care what’s coming out from other players now or in the next 12 months, it’s just focussed on putting out gadgets, products and services for customers likely to buy an Apple product. Devices that meet the Apple checklist of what something can or can’t be.
It’s something to get ready for then: the possibility that we might not see Tim Cook hold a 7.85-inch iPad above his head come Wednesday next week. If he doesn’t at least you know why.
On a side note, though: I’m very happy to be proven wrong about this. All will be revealed come 23 October.