The Inevitability of the iPad Mini

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Apple got it right with the iPad.

The 9.7" screen size is large enough to provide an engrossing UI experience yet small enough to be effortlessly portable. Large enough to clearly differentiate itself from the iPhone yet small enough to be easily held for long periods of time.

As competitors began introducing different sized (mostly smaller) tablets, the iPad increasingly felt "just right." Given the unquestionable success of the iPad combined with Jobs’ scathing criticism of smaller tablets, the pervasive rumors of an "iPad Mini" seemed downright foolish.

If anything, the success of the 7" Kindle Fire the only reinforced this sentiment. Clearly positioned as a value priced content consumption device, not a full featured tablet....and certainly not a direct iPad competitor, the 7" screeen size seemed destined to remain relegated to a different class of devices.

However, with the introduction of the Nexus 7 (which admittedly I have not yet seen in person) the 7" screen size has been given credence as a valid form factor for a full featured tablet. Based on early reviews and images the Nexus 7 appears to be a genuinely compelling device....a synergy of an improved Android experience and well considered hardware at an easily accessible price point. It’s a device that I want despite the fact that I don’t need it, and at the $199 price I’ll likely buy one because....well, because it’s cool and it looks useful. I’ve found myself imagining using the device day-to-day and in many cases I’ve realized that I would actually prefer the 7" size vs. the 9.7" iPad.

Given the increasing insistence of the rumor mill, recent articles from Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, as well as some typically astute considerations by John Gruber, I’m now convinced that the iPad Mini isn’t just inevitable, but that it will be a fantastic device.

USE CASES

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An iPad Mini would naturally lend itself to somewhat different use cases than the full size iPad. While both devices would likely be equally capable, the Mini would work especially well for content consumption and short use scenarios, while those performing more intensive tasks would gravitate toward the 9.7" device.

In many scenarios a smaller iPad would be advantageous....where space is at a premium (a flight or a crowded subway train) or where the device is held for a long period of time (reading in bed). Sure, browsing on the sofa or using a drawing, editing, or writing app would be a better experience on the full size iPad, but the number of cases suited to the smaller device more than justify its existence.

SIZE MATTERS

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The biggest argument against a smaller iPad is that by decreasing the screen size interface elements and touch targets would become unusably small. At 7" this may be the case. However, at the rumored 7.85" size screen elements would be realized at approximately 81% the size that they are on a 9.7" screen. Smaller, but I believe perfectly usable.

As has been pointed out, the 7.85" size would result from using the iPhone/ 3G/ 3GS pixel pitch of 163 PPI while scaling to a resolution of 1024x768....the resolution of the first and second generation iPad. This would result in a screen size adequately differentiated from the 9.7" iPad (and the iPhone) while maintaining a scale well suited to iOS tablet apps. And of course, by utilizing an existing iOS resolution fragmentation would be avoided.

Sure, 163 PPI is well below Retina display territory, but as is evidenced by the significantly increased battery capacity and charging times of the new iPad vs the iPad 2, these extra pixels are definitely not free. And inevitably, down the road the resolution of the iPad Mini could be doubled to match that of the full size Retina iPad as production costs, availability, and product cycles allow.

All things considered, the logic of a 7.85" screen size at a 1024x768 resolution is just too strong to ignore.

ECONOMIES OF SCALE

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Apple prides itself on high profit margins. Based on data from IHS/iSuppli Research the manufacturing costs of the 16GB Wi-fi third generation iPad add up to around $316. Selling at $499 this equates to a profit margin of around 37%. The 16GB Wi-fi iPad 2 costs are around $245, at a selling price of $399, yielding a margin of around 39%. Good margins indeed.

While interface elements on a 7.85" screen would be 81% the size of those on a 9.7" screen, the surface area of the smaller screen would be just 65% that of its larger counterpart.

By starting with the lower cost non-Retina pixel pitch and then taking into account the reduced size of the LCD, digitizer, battery, display glass, case, packaging, etc....the production costs can surely be significantly reduced from that of the iPad 2.

I believe that Apple will price the 16GB Wi-fi iPad Mini at $299 to yield margins of at least 30%. In the hierarchy of the Apple product lineup $249 seems low....it’s half the price of the new iPad after all and only $50 more than the iPod Touch. Conversely, anything above $299 starts to seem pretty pricey, certainly in comparison to the $199 tablets.

With the current generation iPad priced at $499 and an iPad Mini priced at $299, the previous generation iPad could happily soldier on priced at $399. And as the next generation iPad Mini is introduced at $299 the previous generation would likely drop to $249 or below.

DIFFERENTIATION/ THE CUTE FACTOR

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When the iPod Mini was introduced it offered 4GB of storage for $249, while the full size iPod offered 15GB of storage for $299. The mini offered 27% the storage space for 82% of the price and it wasn’t that much smaller. Yet people fell in love and they snapped them up. On paper the iPod Mini didn’t make sense but in practice the device was compelling. At least part of the appeal of the Mini was that it was simply cool....and frankly, cute. The big iPod was the elder statesman, elegant and experienced, while the Mini was the spunky sidekick with a magnetic personality. There’s just something appealing about a mini device....especially a full featured one.

I expect that the iPad Mini will simply be a scaled down version of big brother, however it wouldn’t surprise me to see new elements that preview changes that may be coming to the fourth Generation iPad next spring.

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Or maybe the difference will be more pronounced....perhaps a different case material. Apple has aluminum unibody production down to a science, however a high quality plastic case could serve to differentiate the product while potentially reducing production costs. Or perhaps a polished stainless steel back a la the iPod Touch? Personally, I would love a device in anodized aluminum similar to the Shuffle and Nano iPod lines, however Apple has wisely limited polychromatic color choices to accessories and its smaller pieces of hardware and I expect that it will remain that way.

Whatever form a smaller iPad may take, it will undoubtedly work very well, and sell very well...and we will all look back and wonder why we ever thought it was a bad idea.

Note: as I finished writing this post I came across an article from the site Cast Irony. In it the author details touch target sizing to support to viability of a 7.8" iPod, as well as some considerations for specific types of apps on a smaller device.