Big thoughts on a little iPad

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Though some of us didn’t believe it would happen, all signs point to Apple unveiling a smaller iPad (among other things) at its October 23 event.

We’ll know what Cupertino has up its sleeve by late Tuesday, so there’s little need for us to prognosticate about the “little more to show” Apple promised on its event invitation.

But we won’t let that stop us.

What to expect

Lex: OK, there’s a ton we don’t yet know about the iPad—up to and including its name. It might be a 7.8-inch iPad mini, or a 7-inch iPad Air. It might have one camera, two, or none. It might start with just 8GB of storage, or it might match the full-size iPad’s 16GB minimum. Perhaps it will have optional cellular connectivity; perhaps it won’t.

Dan: I’m glad you’re finally taking a stand on this important matter.

Lex: The one thing I’m willing to say with certainty is that Apple really will unveil an iOS device that’s smaller than an iPad, but bigger than iPod touch.

Dan: Let’s call it the iBreadbox.

Lex: We keep our bread in the fridge.

Dan: I’m willing to go on a limb here—based on my spotless prognostication record—and predict that we’ll see a 7.85-inch iPad, with a 1024-by-768 pixel display. I’d also wager that it starts at 16GB and goes as high as 32GB.

Lex: I’m still thinking the cheapest entry-level model starts at 8GB, but I agree with the rest of that.

Dan: I can’t imagine Apple will release an iPad any smaller—in capacity, anyway—than what is already out there.

Kindle Fire

Lex: Well, I think that Apple’s number one goal in releasing a smaller iPad—let’s call it the iPad mini for now—is to compete with devices like the $159 Kindle Fire and the $200 Nexus 7. And I have to believe that to get a price level that low, Apple will cut any corners it can. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone buy an 8GB iOS device, because apps are just too darn big these days, But I still think Apple would release such a device if it drove the entry-level price down.

Dan: I agree that Apple’s not going to sell the device at a loss, which is what Amazon seems to be doing. But I think more money will be saved by, for example, not including a Retina display. These days, Apple is using flash memory in such prodigious quantities that I don’t think it’s a major expenditure for the company.

Lex: You may be right. But at least I’m not on the record saying that no iPad mini is coming this month.

Dan: I think there are a few things we can agree on, at least. And that’s that the iPad mini will probably have more in common with its iOS device brethren than not: It will have built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a headphone jack, external volume buttons, and so on. For most purposes, it will greatly resemble all the other iOS devices we’ve seen before. Not least, I think it’ll feature a Lightning port instead of the old 30-pin dock-connector—mainly because Apple is going to solidify its move away from the former standard, but also because the smaller size of that connector will be handy in a 7-inch device.

Lex: I’d agree with that. But I imagine that, under-the-hood, it will be underpowered compared to the iPhone 5 and the third-generation iPad in several ways: Perhaps it will use Apple’s slower A5 processor, and maybe it won’t support the more advanced Wi-Fi options in the iPhone 5.

Dan: And I'd agree with that. The one point I’m kind of hedging on is the inclusion of fast cellular networking. It seems like a device this portable will be something where you’d want to have Internet access all the time. But so far, it’s proved to be an extra expense for the iPad, and non-existent on the iPod touch.

Lex: And if Apple does ship models with cellular connectivity as an option (which I also think it will), I’m willing to wager that it won’t offer a subsidized cellular data plan, the way that Amazon does with the Kindle Fire. (You pay $50 for your first year of data, which gets you 250MB of data per month.) That sort of discounted offering is hugely popular with consumers, but I don't think that's the way Apple does business.

Dan: Makes sense to me. Cellular connectivity has proved to be a pricey addition to the iPad—it costs another $129 just to add the cellular option. And Apple’s never offered the feature on the iPod touch, much to the dismay of many customers. Speaking of which…

Where a smaller iPad fits

Lex: One question my friends have been asking me—and one I don’t always feel well-equipped to answer—is where precisely Apple positions an iPad mini, in terms of its increasingly large and varied iOS lineup. The new iPod touch costs $299; last year’s model costs $199. As I mentioned before, I do think one of Apple’s motivations for releasing an iPad mini is to compete with the companies that are making smaller, more affordable tablets. The $499 price for the base model third-generation iPad is impressive; $399 for the iPad 2 is, too. But obviously Apple can reach even more customers if it has a smaller tablet that costs a lot less.

iPod touch

Dan: When it comes to the iPod touch, I think John Gruber put it best when he said that it’s a “different category” from the iPad. Even if the two are close in price, I don’t think that people looking to buy an iPod touch will necessarily think, “Hey, for just a little bit more I can upgrade to an iPad mini.” And even if they do, Apple’s still getting the sale, which is a win for the company.

Lex: But I still think customers will feel puzzled if they can buy an iPad mini for less than an iPod touch. I think you and Gruber are right: A pocket-sized device is vastly different from a “merely” portable device. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that, if I can get this bigger thing for less, why don’t I? As you said, Apple sells a product either way. But if that iPod touch price doesn’t come down, there will definitely be some confused customers at the Apple Store.

Dan: So, let’s lay it on the line: How much will a smaller iPad cost? Here’s what I think: If Apple can go as low as $199, the iPad mini would totally blow away any competitors. But I don’t think the company has any problem saying, “Hey, this iPad mini is better than what our competitors are offering, so we think it’s worth another $50.” If the company has to go up to another $50, to $299, there’s no question in my mind that people would still buy it. But you’re getting awfully close to full-size iPad territory, and leaving a lot of opportunity for competitors. To me, $249 is the sweet spot.

Lex: Apple’s never felt compelled to compete on price, and has long been willing to charge what it believes its products are worth. And the company always cares more about profit share than market share. That said, I think this product launch could be a defining moment for iOS and the iPad’s future.

Does Apple want to reassert its dominance in the tablet market and push its upstart competitors—don’t forget the forthcoming Microsoft Surface—even further behind? If it does, I think a $199 entry-level iPad mini is a sure bet. If Apple instead starts the pricing at $249, it will still sell oodles of the things. But it won’t necessarily capture those customers who say, “I want an iPad, or the cheapest approximation thereof.” That’s not you or me, Dan, and it may not be most Macworld readers. But I think there are plenty of people like that.

Dan: What’s the Microsoft Surface?

Lex: Formica.

Who's it for?

Lex: So besides price, why would I want to buy one of these smaller iPads?

Dan: Good question. I think we can expect Apple to pitch us on the iPad mini as a reading device. I hear you have problems reading on the iPad.

Lex: Right. One key advantage of a smaller—and, more importantly, lighter—iPad is the fact that it will hurt less if, say, I fall asleep while reading with it in bed, and it crashes into my face.

Dan: I don’t run into this problem as much as you seem to, but I think you’re right that it’s easier to deal with in scenarios like that, or when you have to hold the iPad for a long period of time. At under 1.5 lbs, the full-size iPad isn’t exactly heavy, but after a while, you want to put it down. And Apple never wants you to put your iPad down.

Lex: And a smaller iPad isn’t just more portable, it’s easier to use in less roomy confines, like an airplane seat—or your apartment. Really, though, I just see two potentially significant tradeoffs you make with a smaller iPad: Typing would be harder than on an iPhone (with your thumbs) or an iPad (with your full hands). And I would expect that some tinier touch targets would be tougher to tap on the smaller screen.

Dan: Fair enough. I’ve wondered about alternative text input methods since the debut of the original iPad. Maybe Apple has something up its sleeve to help address the problem. But probably not.

Lex: Would that it were true. Then maybe it would write this piece for us.

Siri: Would you two stop goofing around? I’m trying to work here.

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