Let’s Try to Think This iPad Mini Thing All the Way Through

We’re Talking About a Smaller iPad, Not a Bigger iPod Touch

I’ve seen a fair bit of speculation that, if Apple produces a 7-inch iOS device, then maybe it would be a bigger iPod Touch, not a smaller iPad. One aspect of this line of thinking is that rather than making on-screen tap targets smaller (and, the worry goes, perhaps too small), a bigger iPod Touch would make tap targets bigger.

Whatever the merits of that idea (and I don’t think it has many), that’s not what Apple is doing. For one thing, the rumored device has a very specific screen size: 7.85 inches diagonally, 1024 × 768 pixels. That’s far closer to 8 inches than 7. In fact, it’s closer to 8 inches than the 9.7-inch iPad-as-we-know-it is to 10 inches — so if you want to round to the nearest integer, it would be more accurate to call it an 8-inch iPad than a 7-inch one. Plus, the aspect ratio matches the iPad, not the iPhone/iPod Touch.

For another thing, I and others have heard from Cupertino-area little birdies that what Apple has been working on in the lab is a smaller iPad, not a bigger iPod. Same goes for last week’s reports from Bloomberg and the WSJ.

Marketing-wise, who knows what Apple would call it. I don’t think they’d use the “iPod” brand instead of the “iPad” brand, but anything is possible when it comes to Apple and naming products. But in terms of understanding what it is, if it ships, it’s an iPad, about two inches smaller diagonally.

Poor Man’s iPad Mini Simulator

A few months ago, when these 7.85-inch iPad rumors started heating up and speculation began on whether it would actually be feasible, usability-wise, to run existing iPad apps on such a display, my pal Craig Hockenberry showed me a simple trick.

Ends up a 7.85-inch iPad display would be about as tall, physically, as the current 9.7-inch iPad display is wide. Here’s the math: 1024 pixels divided by 163 pixels per inch = 6.28 inches for the purported iPad Mini height; 768 pixels divided by 132 pixels per inch = 5.8 inches for the current iPad width. Not exact but close — the rumored iPad Mini would actually be half an inch taller than the existing iPad is wide.

So, here’s how you can make a poor man’s iPad Mini simulator: take a screenshot on your iPad, then view the screenshot on the iPad but rotate the device. This shrinks the screenshot to fit — almost exactly the same reduction in size as this purported iPad Mini.

It’s not exact, but it’s a close enough approximation to see that it’s not outlandish, and that the tap targets in most apps will be just fine. I think there’s a method to Apple’s madness in recommending 44-point-or-larger tap targets for all iOS apps, both on the iPhone and iPad, despite the fact that on the iPad-as-we-know-it, each point is physically larger than a point on the iPhone or iPod Touch. (1 point maps directly to 1 pixel on iPad 1/2 and older iPhones; 1 point maps to a 4-pixel square on the iPad 3 and iPhone 4/4S.) A 44-point tap target on the rumored iPad Mini would be exactly the same physical size as a 44-point tap target on the iPhone.1

This is a classic Fitts’s Law problem, and Fitts’s Law states that the ease of hitting a target is a function of both the size of the target and the distance to get there. So you want bigger targets on bigger displays, because there’s more distance for your pointer (in this case, your finger) to travel, but you can get away with smaller targets on a smaller display because there’s less distance to travel.

The Tweener Situation

I am not trying to review a device that I not only haven’t seen, but which I don’t even know will ever actually ship. Maybe Apple ships this thing and it’s terrible, everything is too hard to tap and too small to read. I don’t know. I’m just saying, if you look at the math and play around with rotated iPad screenshots to reduce their size, it seems like it could work, even if it’s not ideal.

But: is not ideal exactly what Apple always shoots for? Has not it been a bedrock of iOS evangelism for five years that the platform offers a superior experience because developers and UI designers can target not just a physical size or pixel size but both, simultaneously? Would not this purported iPad Mini that runs existing iPad apps at the same pixel-count but reduced in size break from this pursuit of perfection?

I turn the mic over to the world’s most-quoted critic of smaller touchscreen tablets, Steven P. Jobs, during Apple’s October 2010 quarterly results conference call (original audio; transcript via Macworld):

One naturally thinks that a seven-inch screen would offer 70 percent of the benefits of a 10-inch screen. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. The screen measurements are diagonal, so that a seven-inch screen is only 45 percent as large as iPad’s 10-inch screen. You heard me right: just 45 percent as large.

If you take an iPad and hold it upright in portrait view, and draw an imaginary horizontal line halfway down the screen, the screens on these seven-inch tablets are a bit smaller than the bottom half of the iPad’s display. This size isn’t sufficient to create great tablet apps, in our opinion.

While one could increase the resolution of the display to make up some of the difference, it is meaningless unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one-quarter of their present size.

Apple has done extensive user testing on user interfaces over many years, and we really understand this stuff. There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touchscreen before users cannot reliably tap, flick or pinch them. This is one of the key reasons we think the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.

Third, every tablet user is also a smartphone user. No tablet can compete with the mobility of a smartphone. Its ease of fitting into your pocket or purse. Its unobtrusiveness when used in a crowd. Given that all tablet users will already have a smartphone in their pockets, giving up precious display area to fit a tablet in their pockets is clearly the wrong trade-off.

The seven-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone, and too small to compete with an iPad.

So, how can we square the idea of Apple making an iPad Mini with Jobs’s remarks from just a year and a half ago? We could point out (again) that 7.85 inches is closer to 8 inches than 7, and that the exact size of the purported iPad Mini display offers 66 percent of the surface area of a 9.7-inch iPad, not 45 percent. We could point out (again) that, assuming Apple-recommended 44-point user interface tap targets on a display with 163 points per inch, it should offer tap targets of the exact same physical size as every iPhone made to date, thus avoiding the need for Apple to include sandpaper with the device.2

We could point out that what Jobs was trashing on that call wasn’t so much smaller tablets in general as the specific actual smaller tablets then entering the market — led by the Samsung Galaxy Tab. The remainder of his screed after the portion quoted above was quite specific: those tablets (circa October 2010) were running versions of Android that were never meant for larger-than-phone-sized displays, the Android app landscape was anemic at the time, and, perhaps most devastating, those devices were priced as high as or higher than the iPad. The contract-free Galaxy Tab cost $600, and it cost $400 with a monthly contract — which contract cost $30 a month to start. In short, a $600 Galaxy Tab running Android 2.2 is a far cry from a $200 Nexus 7 running Android 4.1. And we know that Jobs was proven exactly right: those tablets were dead on arrival.

We could point out a pattern that repeated throughout Jobs’s career: Jobs saying Apple wouldn’t do X or that X was a bad idea; then, a year or two later, Jobs would unveil Apple’s take on X and herald it as a wholly original Apple innovation. In 2003, he told Walt Mossberg no one would want to watch video on a tiny iPod display, that Apple had no interest in the cell phone business, and no interest in the tablet market, either, saying, “It turns out people want keyboards. […] We look at the tablet, and we think it is going to fail.” Jobs, of course, went on to introduce the first video-playing iPod in 2005, the iPhone in 2007, and a keyboard-less tablet called the iPad in 2010. He told John Markoff in 2008 that e-books were doomed: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” Two years later he unveiled the iBookstore.

We could point out that Tim Cook, just over a month ago at this year’s All Things D conference, declared that the ability to change his mind was among the most important things Cook learned from Jobs: “He would flip on something so fast that you would forget that he was the one taking the 180 degree polar [opposite] position the day before. I saw it daily. This is a gift, because things do change, and it takes courage to change. It takes courage to say, ‘I was wrong.’ I think he had that.”

We could point out all of those things, but in the end none of them matter. All that matters is whether a smaller iPad would actually be good. If Apple ships it, it will be judged on its own merits, regardless of what Steve Jobs said 18 months ago. That’s it.

That the Purported Device’s Display Is, Purportedly, Not Retina

Another strain of skepticism I’ve seen goes along the following lines:

It’s one thing for Apple to continue selling the iPhone 3GS and iPad 2, but I can’t see Apple introducing a new device with a non-retina display.

It does seem curious. But it also seemed curious back in January 2004 when Apple unveiled the 4 GB iPod Mini for $249, given that for just $50 more you could buy the regular iPod, which had 15 GB of storage. Trade-offs have to be made. When Apple designed the iPod Mini, they optimized for one factor: a reduction in physical size and weight. The consequences of that trade-off were that the iPod Mini wasn’t much cheaper than the regular iPod, and it had far less storage capacity.

If Apple were to ship a 7.85-inch iPad with a non-retina 163-ppi display, it would signify that one of the key factors they’re optimizing for is cost. Unlike that iPod Mini, which was smaller but cost almost as much as its bigger sibling, perhaps this iPad Mini is smaller and costs much less — at the expense, for one thing, of display quality. This, of course, would pave the way for a retina update a year or two down the line.

Which in turn suggests a way to turn this strain of skepticism on its head. Apple, to date, has never introduced a new iOS form factor with a retina display — they add retina displays as upgrades two or three years after devices hit the market.

And, by introducing the iPad Mini with a non-retina display but a lower price, it would instantly establish which product is the “best” (iPad (3)) and which is the low-cost model (iPad Mini). In this way, I envision the iPad/iPad Mini relationship being very different from the iPod/iPod Mini one, where the two products were nearly evenly priced and you chose between storage capacity (iPod) and device size/weight (iPod Mini).

Price

Speaking of price, Watts Martin doesn’t think Apple could hit the $199 mark:

Apple makes as much money as they do — a whole lot of money indeed — by being strategic about what money they go after. They’re fine with being a “premium” brand. And even as good as their supply chain management is, I don’t think Apple can produce a 7-inch iPad for $140.

Here’s why I think Apple could sell it for $199. If Google can sell the 1280 × 800 pixel Nexus 7 for $199 and break even on it, I think Apple could produce a 1024 × 768 7.85-inch iPad for a break-even price of, say, $150. Charge $199 and that’s a decent (but, admittedly, low by Apple’s astounding standards) 25 percent margin.

Why do I think Apple could produce it for less than Google/Asus? Because Apple has such tremendous economy-of-scale advantages. But maybe Martin is right, and iPad Mini prices will — if the thing is real — start at $249. It certainly wouldn’t be outlandish for Apple to charge some sort of premium over the base price of the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire (although who knows what this year’s Kindle Fire will cost — Amazon has been relentless about reducing the price of Kindle hardware year-over-year).

But as important as profit margins are to Apple, sometimes opportunities arise that are exceptions to the rule. iPhones and iPads are not just devices. They are the foundation for what is turning into the biggest software platform since DOS/Windows, and what is already the most profitable one.

Let’s again return to one Mr. Steven Paul Jobs, this time from his (oft-cited by yours truly) 2004 interview with Steven Levy for Newsweek, regarding how the Mac got stuck with so little market share:

If that’s so, then why is the Mac market share, even after Apple’s recent revival, sputtering at a measly 5 percent? Jobs has a theory about that, too. Once a company devises a great product, he says, it has a monopoly in that realm, and concentrates less on innovation than protecting its turf. “The Mac user interface was a 10-year monopoly,” says Jobs. “Who ended up running the company? Sales guys. At the critical juncture in the late ’80s, when they should have gone for market share, they went for profits. They made obscene profits for several years. And their products became mediocre. And then their monopoly ended with Windows 95. They behaved like a monopoly, and it came back to bite them, which always happens.”

It’s still all about profit. The tension is between short-term profit margins (focusing on average selling price and profit per iPad sold by ceding the market for smaller cheaper tablets to Google and Amazon) and long-term profit (from maximizing market share as soon as possible, while the post-PC market landscape remains nascent and fluid).

Here’s Tom Krazit quoting Tim Cook back in 2009 (regarding the iPhone, but I think even more applicable in the tablet market):

On Wednesday, Cook echoed Jobs’ comments about iPhone pricing by saying “one thing we’ll make sure is that we don’t leave a price umbrella for people.” A price umbrella is a term used to describe the effect a dominant company can have on a particular market with a popular-yet-expensive product: competitors can enter the market with other products at lower prices and gain customers just based on affordability, buying those companies time and profits to use in order to make their product better.

Apple followed that strategy a decade ago with the iPod. Though the stakes are now far higher, I see no reason they wouldn’t do the same this decade with the iPad.


  1. If this poor man’s approximation isn’t exact enough for you, earlier today Richard Gaywood put together a web page with iPad screenshots scaled to roughly 81 percent, which, when viewed on an existing iPad, have a diagonal of exactly 7.85 inches. 

  2. Although if they did, I’ll bet it would be the nicest sandpaper in the world. 

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