Breaking It Down: Apple Reportedly Testing Smaller iPads

Apple is testing smaller iPads, according to reports coming out of Taiwan. Citing sources inside the manufacturers, UDN reported (Google translation) that Taiwan-based AU Optronics and a subsidiary of Korean electronics giant LG called LG Display have been sending samples of a 7.85” display for Apple to test. The report also claims the smaller displays would feature the same 1024 x 768 resolution today’s iPad and iPad 2 sport.


Examining the Apple Rumor


There’s a world of context to add to this rumor/report, the first of which is Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which will ship later this fall (in the thick of the Christmas shopping season). The Kindle Fire is US$199, a fraction of the starting price of Apple’s iPad 2, which begins at $499. It’s a fraction of the iPad 2 in other ways, too, including size, resolution, storage, available apps, and probably quality, though that remains to be seen.

Many believe, however, that the tiny price tag will still drive consumers to buy one, and that it will make the Kindle Fire the first viable competitor to Apple’s genre-defining tablet. The iPad remains the only tablet that is selling in meaningful numbers to end-users, but the Kindle Fire seems likely to change that.

One way for Apple to deflect a potential rising tide of Kindle Fire sales would be for the company to introduce a lower-priced iPad at, say, a $299 price tag. Such a product would also serve the company quite well in emerging markets, where an entry level price of $499 is a significant barrier to entry for the vast majority of consumers.

Apple isn’t likely to just slash the price of its current iPad 2 to blunt Kindle Fire, however; Amazon (and HP) may be pleased to lose money on every device sold in the hope of making it up on selling content for its hardware, but Apple makes its profits on the hardware.

Accordingly, offering a smaller iPad model (call it a nano or mini, as you will), is one way the company could lower the price tag of its tablet line.

The other major piece of context is Apple’s own stated position on smaller tablets. The late Steve Jobs himself made a point of appearing at an earnings report conference call to blast Apple’s would-be Android tablet competitors, especially those in a 7” form factor (the same form factor Amazon is using for the Kindle Fire).

At that time, he said that 7” screens simply aren’t big enough for a proper tablet user interface, and that Apple found the 9.7” screen size it used on the iPad (and later the iPad 2) was the smallest screen you can use and still have a user interface that works with fingers.

If Apple is testing 7.85” screens, that would seem to contradict Mr. Jobs’s own words. Fortunately there are some loopholes that offer a convenient way out of any implied contradiction.

The first loophole is the most obvious. The very sad reality is that Steve Jobs is no longer with us, and that technically leaves the Apple that he left behind free to do as Tim Cook wants. At the same time, the other reality is that it will be many years before Apple willingly defies Steve Jobs’s legacy, both implied and stated.

The second loophole is that 7.85” is bigger than 7”. Yes, folks, size matters, and Apple will be able to argue that it turns out that if you squeeze the iPad 2’s resolution into a 7.85” screen, it works wonderfully well, thank you very much, and the added image quality makes the iPad mini/nano Even Better™!!

Keep in mind, too, that Apple has been rumored to be boosting the resolution of the main iPad line to as high as 2048 x 1536, an incredibly high resolution for a 9.7” (or even an 11”) screen. If Apple were to do so, it would leave room for the company to move the current resolution down to a smaller form factor.

The third loophole comes back to Steve Jobs and his regular practice of denigrating whatever Apple wasn’t doing at the time and then announcing that Apple had figured out how to do it properly when it was ready to enter that market.

The most famous case is when Mr. Jobs told a roomful of shareholders that Apple wasn’t going to offer video on the iPod. In that speech, he invoked Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan, “It’s about the economy, stupid,” by saying, “It’s about the music, stupid.”

He argued that MP3 players were about listening to music, and that the form factor made for a terrible video experience. That remained Apple’s position for all of a few months, too, when the company released the iPod video (or video iPod). All of a sudden, watching videos was great on an MP3 player, and the market reacted by sending iPod sales into the stratosphere.

There are a couple of differences between the Mr. Jobs’s comments on video in 2004 and his passionate defense of the iPad in October of 2010, the most important of which is the descriptor we just used, “passionate.” When he was answering the shareholder question about videos on the iPod, his answer was reasoned, logical, and most probably planned. His answer made for a great quip, but it wasn’t remotely a passionate argument for maintaining the integrity of the iPod as a music player. I would add that I was there at this shareholder meeting, and my characterization applies both to his body English and his words.

When Mr. Jobs made his surprise appearance at the Q4 2010 quarterly conference call, we didn’t see his body English, but the passion in his voice was obvious. In our live coverage of the call, I wrote, “Steve is being very passionate about his response in some of these questions. He talked at length about how trying to make cheap products tends to result in inferior experiences.”

Assuming that passion was real, Apple doesn’t seem likely to offer a 7” tablet, at least not one that compromises on screen resolution like the Kindle Fire. A 7.85” device that runs current iPad apps at the same resolution in a product family that includes a 2048 x 1536 resolution big brother? That’s something Apple could do in an effort to seal iPad’s dominance of the media tablet market Apple created.

Whether or not Apple brings such a product to market, you can be sure that the company is constantly testing out other form factors. With that in mind, I give a very high level of credence to this report coming out of Taiwan. The only real mystery is whether or not Apple ships such a product.

Thanks to The Register for the heads up. contributed to some images in this article.