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Applesauce: The Race To The Middle – Is The iPad Mini A Real Thing?

April 17, 2012

Michael Harper for RedOrbit.com

Apple has a very interesting problem: They sit, on top of the technological game, as one of the most valuable companies in the world and one of the most recognizable brands. Since the late 90´s, they´ve had an impressive run of successes. The iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs, and most recently the iPad. The numbers behind these devices are as close to astronomical as they can get. In its opening weekend alone, the new iPad sold more than 30 million units.

What´s more, Apple has largely been able to succeed in these markets by creating “Truly Great Products,” a common phrase from their late CEO, Steve Jobs. Explaining Apple´s motivation and driving force behind each of their products in the oft quoted Isaacson biography, Jobs quotes Henry Ford, saying “If I´d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse!’”

That is to say, Apple has never allowed market research to drive their product development.

Yet, Apple watchers – and mostly Apple analysts – continue to expect them to do this very thing. It happened 2 years ago as analysts, citing “sources,” expected Apple to make a cheaper iPhone – an iPhone Lite they called it – something for the pre-paid market. After all, Android had entered that market, and Apple needed to protect their ground, lest they be trampled underfoot. When companies like Dell and Asus and HP began making super-cheap and ultra-portable netbooks, analysts and tech pundits alike called for Apple to make their own variant in order to stay afloat and avoid total and utter ruin.

This relationship between Apple and Apple watchers can be quite curious.

Though it is their job to follow and report on all things Apple, it feels as if these analysts and pundits are more or less waiting in the wings for Apple´s spectacular failure, ready to say “I told you so!” whenever Apple finally hits the ground, smoldering in their self-destruction. Decisions made are just as likely to be panned as decisions NOT made, and when a new competing product has the rest of the tech world talking, all eyes inevitably shift towards Apple, expecting some sort of answer.

Enter the iPad Mini. Or iPad Junior. Or iPad Pro. Like other rumored Apple products, the device already has a operative name, despite its not being an actual product. As tablets and phones began to slowly encroach upon each other´s territory, (circa the Dell Mini Streak) there has been a sort of expectation of Apple to release a competing product. Now, with Amazon´s Kindle Fire selling well in its first quarter and other Android and Windows tablets expected to be released in the 7-inch playing field, the iPad Mini-Junior-Pro-Lite rumors are picking up steam, along with calls of warning to Apple from analysts and pundits to enter this market, lest they begin their slow descent to Dell.

And this is where our story begins:

The rumors began to pick up steam once more during the first week of April when John Gruber, popular Apple writer with the occasional inside source, mentioned on his weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin, The Talk Show, that Apple currently has a 7.85 inch iPad model in its test labs.

According to Gruber, “numerous” people had told him Apple had been “noodling” with the size of the iPad. Steve Jobs actually acknowledged this himself, saying the company had tried out multiple sizes before.

Apple has done extensive user testing on user interfaces over many years, and we really understand this stuff.

When asked if Apple would actually release such a tablet, John Gruber responded, “Well, I don´t know…”

“What I do know is that they have one in the lab“¦a 7.85 inch iPad that runs at 1024-by-768“¦ it´s just like the 9.7-inch iPad shrunk down a little bit. Apps wouldn´t need to be recompiled or redesigned to work optimally on it. It´s just the iPad smaller.”

In order to get a feel for how a 7-inch iPad might look, Gruber says you can take a screen shot on a current iPad while it´s in portrait, then view the screen shot in landscape mode. The resulting image, says Gruber, is a good estimate of how a 7-incher would look. The height of a 7.85-inch iPad would be about the same as the width of a current iPad.

“It´s usable,” Gruber said. “There´s a couple of areas where text is maybe a little too small, but it´s not ridiculously small.”

Gruber then went on to say he doesn´t know anything about a timeframe for when this device would ship, or if it ever would.

“I think it´s something like a maybe“¦” explained Gruber, mentioning Apple is usually more proud of the things they do not ship rather than the things they do.

It seems Gruber truly isn´t sure about the prospect of this new iPad size, going from viewing its release as slightly skeptical to something nearly inevitable.

“It seems ridiculous to me to think that they´ll never be another size iPad,” Gruber concluded.

Fast forward to this week, when a Chinese news site issued a story not only about this new size of iPad, but about its imminent release.

NetEase claimed the new tablet will be released around the third quarter of this year to “counter attack” new Windows tablets expected to go on sale in that timeframe. The Chinese report goes on to mention a price point for this newer, smaller device, placing it around $249 to $299. If the site is in fact correct, Apple is betting large on this new entry into the market, as NetEase says they´ve already got 6 million of the smaller tablets on order from Foxconn and Pegatron, the two companies allegedly responsible for making the devices.

If NetEase´s report has any merit, it may end up verifying a previous report earlier this month from the Korea Times which said the same thing: Apple plans to release a 7.85 inch tablet later this year. The Korea Times piece cites an unnamed Samsung official.

It´s an interesting relationship the two companies share. On one hand, Samsung does provide Apple-designed processors, solid-state drives, and LTE chips to be used in Apple devices. On the other hand, Apple and Samsung are currently pitted against one another in an epic legal battle over whether or not Samsung has been lifting design cues from Apple since the first iPhone was announced.

So would this “unnamed” Samsung official actually be in the know about these new devices? The Korea Times say “yes,” reporting Samsung will be the provider of the new, smaller screens.

Samsung has taken a different approach to smartphones and tablets, manufacturing them at many different sizes. The new Samsung Galaxy Note, for instance, has a 5.3 inch display and works as both a tablet and a phone, earning the mashup title of “phablet” by tech blogs and tech enthusiasts alike.

But will Apple feel the need to compete with Samsung by trying to reach this touchscreen middle ground? Even as these rumors of a 7.85 inch iPad come to the surface once more, new rumors of a 4.6 iPhone have come to light, with Samsung expected to be the purveyor of this new LCD screen as well.

So far these sites and these sources alone paint a pretty rocky picture. Unnamed sources and Chinese websites are not often the bastions of truth and ground-breaking news. What lends some of these rumors a bit of credence, however, is the Wall Street Journal, often thought to be a bit of a mouthpiece for Apple when they announce new products. The Journal has an incredible reputation for setting the record straight on rumors such as these. For instance, while rumors had been circulating for years about the Verizon iPhone, it was the Wall Street Journal who confirmed the date and place of the Verizon iPhone announcement.

So, it should be noted The Wall Street Journal confirms Mr. Gruber´s postulations about the existence of a smaller iPad. According to a February 2012 article, the Journal claims to also have a source who says Apple has been testing smaller versions of the iPad. Not only is Apple testing these smaller versions, says the Journal, but they´re also showing them off to some of their manufacturing partners. Where the Journal and the Korea Times may have a disagreement is in who will be producing the screens for Apple. According to the Korea Times, Samsung will be providing the screen for both the smaller iPad and larger iPhone. The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, say LG and AU Optronics will be the providers of the new, smaller screens.

Does Apple need to worry about competing with these “in-between” sizes, the handheld hinterlands where form and function blur together into a fragmented noise?

After all, it seems many of the stories about a new 7.85 inch iPad or even a 4.6 inch iPhone directly mention other, competing devices. As noted before, the Samsung Galaxy Note Phablet has a 5.3 inch screen. Should Apple get as close as they can to this size and format to persuade any would-be Note buyers to purchase an iPhone instead?

And what of these 7 inch devices? Amazon released their Fire media consumption tablet this past holiday season at an estimated $50 loss per unit in hopes to make up that cost in additional revenue from digital content.

This strategy may be working well for Amazon, as they announced in January more than 6 million Fire´s sold in 2012´s Q4.

But does Apple need to compete in this simultaneous race to the bottom and the middle?

When the iPhone first released, it was quickly panned due to its price and lack of physical keyboard. Early critics estimated the iPhone would fail if it didn´t give customers a phone with a keyboard, a feature the most popular handsets at the time boasted. Those handsets were RIM´s BlackBerry and the Palm Pilot.

Steve Jobs´ vision of Apple is to make great products. It´s deceptively simple. Sure, they want to make a profit, both for themselves and for their shareholders, but the Jobsian driving force behind every Apple product, innovation, and feature is simply quality. Apple has proven time and time again that they will only release a product they are proud of. If they cannot find a way to build a product well, they will scrap it. (See Apple Newton, Apple HiFi, the first iteration of white iPhone 4)

One can expect Apple will only build a smaller iPad or larger iPhone if they truly believe it will be worth their customer´s time.

Also worth considering are the other products expected to be released from Cupertino this year.

It is very likely they will announce the new version of iOS at this year´s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) which usually takes place in the summer.

They have already announced the release of their new Mac operating system, Mountain Lion, which will also release this summer.

It is largely accepted they will announce a new iPhone this Fall.

The big rumor news, of course, is the supposed “revolutionary” new product to be released in time for the 2012 holiday season.

Analysts and rumor sites alike expect this to be an Apple-branded TV, but perhaps they´ve all misunderstood. Maybe the “revolutionary” new product expected later this year will be a smaller iPad.

However, with each of these releases already planned, will Apple have the time to launch a new product, even a new variation of an existing product?

More importantly, can Apple hold on to their customers attention through the end of the year with these products already planned to be released? So far, every quarter is expected to be covered with releases and press statement. Would the iPad mini-lite find any room in this year´s pipeline?

Whether or not Apple plans to release such a medium-ground tablet is yet to be seen. Where Apple analysts and watchers should be careful, however, is in assuming an Apple reaction or response to any competing product will be detrimental to their stock health.

The notion that Apple needs to be reactionary instead of visionary goes completely against their very genetic code. Amazon, Google, and Samsung are reactionary companies (see Kindle Fire, Android, and the Galaxy series of devices.) If Apple decides a smaller tablet could benefit their customers, they will release the device. Otherwise, it´d probably be best to wait for the new Apple TV.

For their part, Apple is content to be tight-lipped, only making statements and releasing products whenever they are good and ready“¦The way Apple has always been.


Source: Michael Harper for RedOrbit.com



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