Opinion: Why Apple should launch a smaller iPad

A 7.85-inch iPad 'mini' is rumoured to exist in prototype form - here's why Apple should launch it

Rumours that Apple has been developing a smaller iPad - which many have been referring to as the iPad mini - for almost as long as the iPad has been around.

Late last week, Ciccarese Design published images (below) of its own iPad mini mockups and its take on the device is unarguably beautiful. But while sources have indicated that Apple has developed a prototype iPad mini, many believe that it will never actually see the light of day.

There are numerous reasons put forward against Apple launching a smaller iPad. For one thing, Steve Jobs didn't like the idea, saying that the 10in form factor was the "minimum" required for tablet apps.

"The 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps. Seven-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone, and too small to compete with an iPad," he said back in October 2010.

"Their manufacturers will learn the painful lesson that their tablets are too small, and increase the size next year, thereby abandoning both customers and developers who jumped on the seven-inch bandwagon with an orphan product. Sounds like lots of fun ahead."

Jobs reportedly was against the idea of further fragmenting iOS - with the iPhone and iPod touch both using 3.5in displays, and the iPad using a 9.7in display, the iOS ecosystem is manageable for app developers, but introducing a third screen size would cause problems similar to those experienced by Android developers that have to create apps that will work on a variety of different devices and screen sizes.

But Jobs' comments, made more than 18 months ago, shouldn't be considered the definitive word on the subject. Just because it didn't make sense then doesn't mean that it doesn't make sense to launch an iPad mini now. Amazon's Kindle Fire sparked an influx of smaller, lower-cost tablets and many analysts expect that Google's Android will gradually begin to overhaul Apple's iOS in this market - even if the process will take several years.

"The sheer number of vendors shipping low-priced, Android-based tablets means that Google's OS will overtake Apple's in terms of worldwide market share by 2015," Tom Mainelli, research director for Mobile Connected Devices for analyst firm IDC said.

Jeff Orr, group director of consumer research at ABI Research pointed out that customers in emerging markets were more likely to buy low-cost tablets with screen sizes between 7in and 9in than Apple's iPad.

"The majority of new entrant media tablet models have been in the sub-$400 segment that focuses on growth markets like India and China. The strong wave of growth in this segment over the next few years is expected to be driven by the adoption in emerging markets," he said.

Apple has been aggressively targeting the Chinese market, where the iPad has already run into problems over its name, and iOS is well behind Android in terms of overall market share. However, it is thought that one in 10 Chinese people living in urban areas owns an iOS device.

It's also clear that there is an appetite for iOS devices in China - we only have to look at the chaos in Beijing at the launch of the iPhone 4S and the tale of the teenager who sold a kidney to buy an iPad and iPhone. The concept of 'mianzi' - which translates roughly as 'status' - is also important in China, where to be seen using an iOS device can enhance one's reputation.

So while a smaller, less costly iPad mini would likely go down well in China, the new screen size could pose less of a problem than originally believed. Writing on the App Advice website, the wonderfully-named A.T. Faust III makes the case for a 7.85in display that has the resolution of the original iPad and iPad 2 - 1024 x 768 - which would make it 163ppi (pixels per inch). 163ppi is the same as the iPod touch and the first three generations of the iPhone.

"When it comes to fabricating LCD panels, the density of a given screen's pixels is inexorably tied to the manufacturing process itself. In other words, working at a given resolution, a screen-maker can manufacture whatever size of display it likes using existing assembly-line hardware," enthuses Faust.

"Apple and its manufacturing partners who've been making original spec iPhone and iPod touch screens for almost five years now have all the machinery they need to make 163 PPI displays, and costs to do so are cheaper than ever."

Developers shouldn't find the new screen size too problematic either, Faust writes. "Developers wouldn't need to provide Apple with a third distinct set of layout parameters; the iPad mini would simply (and automatically) resize their iPad apps to fit its smaller screen."

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Ben Camm-Jones

Macworld U.K.

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