When the iPad mini was announced, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The thing that stood out most was the price. We the Technorati had decided that anything over $250 would simply be too expensive for a small tablet and Apple had the temerity to price it at $329! Nevermind that the mini is Apple’s lowest margin iPad and that unlike Amazon and Google who are content to sell their devices at cost, Apple actually needs to make money on their hardware. Tim Cook’s channel efficiency price-advantage was no longer in play and that meant that to get a mini, you would have to pay a premium over competing devices.
Apple’s pitch at the event was that the iPad mini is actually a different class of device than the competition, because of its wider screen and larger library of apps. The marketing line was “Every inch an iPad” and Johnny Ive made a positively Talmudic distinction when he said that the mini was a “concentration, not a reduction” of the full-sized iPad. Early reviewers generally liked the iPad mini although they all mentioned the lower resolution screen as a major drawback. Meanwhile, on the Apple partisan side of tech journalism, a narrative started to emerge that argued for the Mini being what the iPad always should have been. John Gruber went as far as to say that he was giving up his full-sized iPad Retina in favor of using the mini, because he preferred the form factor. When I went to the Apple Store, I fully expected to leave wanting to purchase an iPad mini. I was surprised after a solid 40 minutes of playing with it that this was not the case. Moreover, I am now convinced that while the mini will definitely sell well, it is not the ideal iPad.
To be sure, the iPad mini’s industrial design is lovely. Taking its cues from the recently updated iPod Touch and iPhone 5, the iPad mini is handsome in both black and white and its newly rounded edges feel great in the hand. More importantly, for the first time, you can really hold an iPad in one hand without fatigue. This, in my mind, is the mini’s greatest asset. But the screen is a real problem. You see it’s wonderful that the iPad mini runs all of the iPad apps while being lighter and smaller than its full-sized siblings, but the reality is that small tablets are for people who want to consume content. Content like books and websites and magazines and newspapers. And staring at a non-Retina screen is a subpar reading experience.
Okay, so we all know that it’s just a matter of time before Apple upgrades the mini to have a retina display. Will it then be the perfect iPad? I don’t think so. I actually think that Apple nailed the screen size on the original iPad. And while a 7.9 inch Retina iPad would be a wonderful small tablet, I still don’t think that it will be as useful as the full-sized iPad. Apple has sold over 100,000,000 full-sized iPads to date. The iPad is becoming a de-facto PC replacement and for that purpose, 7.9 inches is too small. Do I think that Apple made a mistake by releasing the iPad mini? Far from it. We can surmise, along with Gruber, that the iPad 2 is still around, because it continues to sell well. What this tells me is that despite my criticism, the average consumer doesn’t care so much about screen resolution or pixels per inch. Moreover, by dropping the entry level price by $70, Apple can make much more aggressive plays in the education market.
I have no doubt that in addition to a Retina iPad mini, Apple is working on a new design for the full-sized iPad that we will see some time next year. It will be significantly lighter and more lovely than the current model whose industrial design is starting to feel a little stale. Is it possible to make a 9.7 inch Retina iPad that is light enough to hold in one hand and runs all day on a single charge? I don’t know. But I do know that that would be the ideal iPad.