Deciding about the iPad mini

At a media event this Tuesday, Apple is all but certain to announce a smaller version of the iPad, dubbed by the press as the "iPad mini" (and that's what I will call it for now).

For those of us who live within the Apple universe, the big questions are: "Who will want one? Will the product be a success?" For those who already own an iPhone and an iPad (as I do), the immediate need for an iPad mini will likely be minimal. For such users, a more relevant question may be: "For my next iPad purchase, will I rather have an iPad or an iPad mini?"

The ultimate answers to such questions should become clearer after Apple reveals the features and specs of the impending mini. While we're waiting, here are a few key points to ponder.

Media Event InviteWill the iPad mini be a bigger iPod touch or a smaller iPad?

To put it another way, will the smaller iPad be able to run iPad-optimized software? Or only iPhone software?

I strongly expect that the mini will run iPad-optimized software. The product is not going to be called the iPod touch mega. It's going to be an iPad…and that should mean it runs iPad-optimized software.

That said, there may be problems with some apps that look good on a 10-inch display but will feel cramped on a 7- or 8-inch device. I doubt this means Apple will introduce a third app format specific to the mini. Rather, I'm guessing that the resolution of the mini will allow for a simple scaling down of the current iPad display. As such, I expect that all current iPad apps will automatically run on the mini.

However this plays out, pay close attention here. These specs will likely be critical for comparing the relative merits of an iPad to an iPad mini.

Will Apple market the iPad mini as primarily for "content creation"?

An initial knock against the iPad was that it was only for content consumption, not content creation (e.g., actual work). However, as ably demonstrated by Apple's iWork apps for iOS, and continuing with numerous third-party productivity apps, this perception is wrong. These days, a more often asked question is: "Can the iPad serve as an substitute for a MacBook?" Increasingly, the answer is yes — at least for a subset of Mac users.

The arrival of a smaller iPad again raises this "consumption vs. creation" issue. Is a 7.x inch display too small for content creation? Does this mean Apple will (or should) market the mini as primarily a consumption device, taking direct aim at competitors such as Kindles and Nooks?

I believe the answer here is no. After all, Apple's iWork apps work on the iPhone as well as the iPad. If Apple believes these productivity apps are appropriate for the small iPhone display, they must certainly believe they can be used on the iPad mini. In my view, this makes the iPad mini a superior alternative to something like the Kindle Fire. The mini can be a fine ebook reader comparable to the Kindle, but much much better at everything else – from web surfing to email to productivity tasks.

In the end, the customer will be the final arbiter. If people use the mini for content creation, then that's the sort of device it will be.

What about a camera?

Over the past weeks, I've had the opportunity to spend time at a number of tourist attractions here in the Bay Area. Wherever I've been, I've seen people using an iPad as a camera. Not a lot of people, but definitely enough to take notice. It still strikes me as an odd sight. I can only assume that these people don't have an iPhone or an iPod touch in their pocket. If they have any phone camera at all, I assume they prefer the iPad because of non-camera factors — such as the iPad's integration with iCloud.

Does this mean that the iPad mini is likely to include a rear-facing camera? I will say no here. With its smaller size, the iPad mini will be less awkward to hold as a camera than an iPad. However, I believe Apple's decision will be based on two other more important criteria:

First, Apple will want to keep the price of the mini as low as they can afford to make it. Eliminating the rear camera will help. Second, the mini's primary immediate competition will be Kindle's and Nooks — which do not have a camera at all. This allows Apple to pass on the camera without worrying that it will cost them points in competitor comparisons.

Still, I expect the iPad mini will have a camera. It will be a "front-facing" FaceTime camera. FaceTime runs on every Mac and iOS device currently for sale. I don't see the new mini becoming the lone exception. Again, this will give the mini a leg up on the competition.

Will the iPad mini have unique features?

Will the iPad mini be little more than a smaller version of its iPad sibling? Or will it include special features not found on any other iOS device?

This is biggest unknown. As one example, the mini might come with new ebook-related features — so as to make the device more attractive to people who are otherwise considering a Kindle or Nook. This could also help carve out a niche for the mini separate from the iPad. I'm just not sure exactly what the specifics of such features might be. We'll find out — one way or the other — on Tuesday.

What will the iPad mini cost?

I've already written about the potential dilemma here: it's entirely possible that an iPad mini will sell for less than a 32GB iPod touch. If so, the big "loser" here is likely to be the iPod touch. But if touch sales plummet after the iPad mini arrives, I doubt Apple will lose any sleep over it. As John Gruber similarly pointed out, if customers are buying iPad minis instead of touches, Apple still gets the sale. At the end of the day, if everyone interested in buying a mobile device chooses an Apple product, it won't matter to Apple which one they choose.

A less conflicted plus for Apple is that the mini opens the door to a new segment of the market — those that want a smaller-sized and/or less expensive tablet than the current iPad. Just as Apple did with the iPod mini years ago, by expanding the iPad choices, Apple should extend its total market share.