Why a 7 Inch iPad Makes Sense

When asked about the wisdom of a 7-in. iPad, Steve Jobs dismissed it as “dead on arrival.” In what I’d like to believe is a case of great minds thinking alike, my initial thoughts were exactly in line with those of Mr. Jobs.

My reasoning at the time was simple. A 7-in. iPad would be too big to function as a mobile alternative to an iPhone or iPod touch. At the other end, it would be too small to adequately function as general purpose tablet computer. Many people see the iPad as ultimately replacing laptops such as the MacBook Air. I can’t see a 7-in. iPad ever doing this. I didn’t see much room in the middle for anything else.

In light of recent events, I’ve reconsidered my logic. I believe my analysis is still 100 percent correct, except for one small detail: the conclusion. I now believe that a 7-in. iPad makes sense after all. The resolution of this paradox lies in the assumptions. If I stand by my initial assumptions, a 7-in. iPad remains a bad idea. The problem is that I no longer think those assumptions are entirely valid. They are too narrow.

What changed my thinking is (you guessed it!) the recent success of the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet. These are 7-in. devices. So how did they succeed?

The first reason is undoubtedly price. At half the cost of even the cheapest iPad, they are an attractive alternative to anyone on a limited budget.

However, I believe the critical factor (the one I overlooked initially) is that these devices are not marketed directly as iPad competitors. They are first and foremost e-readers. Barnes and Noble describes their Tablet (and similar Color model) as the “World’s Best Reading Experience + Tablet Essentials.” Amazon goes a bit further, stressing more how the Kindle Fire leverages all of media (books, movies, music). But that’s still a far way from focusing on the full range of things an iPad can do.

Yes, it’s true you can get apps for Kindle Fires and Nooks — as you can with an iPad. That’s an appealing plus for these devices. But that’s the bonus, not what first sells the device. First and foremost, these devices are an e-reader (and media player). And that’s why the 7-in. screen works. These tablets are just slightly bigger than a typical paperback book, exactly the size that people are most comfortable with for reading. As it turns out, it’s also a very good size for mobile viewing of video and playing games (not as good as the iPad, but much better than the iPhone).

If you think of a Kindle Fire as an e-reader with added iPad-like features for half the price of an iPad, it suddenly can look quite appealing. It’s true that the Fire’s “iPad-like features” don’t come close to working as well as the iPad itself. But they don’t have to work that well for the device to succeed. The original Kindles have been a huge success. The Fire builds on that.

There remains one thing that does still surprise me about these e-reader tablets: the display. I recently bought a Kindle Touch. With its 6-in. display, it’s an even closer match to the size of a paperback than the Fire. More critically, for reading books, its E ink technology offers a great alternative to the iPad’s glossy backlit display. E ink looks almost like you’re reading a printed page; it’s easier on the eyes, works great in bright light, and conserves the battery better. That’s why I got one.

The Fire and Nook tablets abandon this E ink advantage. In order to provide color, they instead have the same sort of display found on an iPad. I would have thought this would be a big negative for people seeking an e-reader. Perhaps, if like me, you already own an iPad, it is a negative. But apparently, for many many people, it’s a trade-off they are happy to make.

And this is precisely where there is a huge opening for Apple to drive through with a 7-in. iPad. A 7-in. iPad at a competitive price could crush the competition. Having read books both on my Kindle Touch and via the Kindle app on my iPad, I can tell you that the Kindle app software on the iPad is far superior. It has a faster smoother feel and offers more features. Once you remove E ink as a consideration, the only reason to prefer the Kindle is its smaller size and lighter weight. A 7-in. iPad would eliminate that advantage for the Kindle. Plus, with the iPad, you don’t have to choose between Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Apple’s own iBooks. You have access to all three. Lastly, once you move beyond media and games to the broader categories of apps, the iPad wins by several miles. All the reviews I have read of the Fire confirm this. The Kindle Fire is a clunker by comparison to the iPad.

Apple could drop a few iPad features (perhaps the camera) to help get the price down. The iPad would still run circles around the competition. Apple might even market the 7-in. device as more focused on being an e-reader and media player, as opposed to its larger sibling. It would still be a winner. Honestly, unless you simply boycott Apple on principle, I can’t imagine why anyone would prefer a Kindle or a Nook to a 7-in. iPad.

Unlike my colleague John Martellero, I don’t quite accept that Apple “got caught with its pants down at Christmas” and that it must now come out with a 7-in. iPad ASAP or fall further behind. While Apple is most known for its leading edge innovations, such as the iPad and iPhone, it is just as often a laggard in adopting new technologies — waiting until they can get it “right” rather than rushing something half-baked to market. The 7-in. iPad could easily be an example of the latter. Despite Steve Jobs’s admonition, I believe Apple is currently working on such a device. And we will see it before the year is over. And when we do, it will rapidly ascend to the top of the heap, with Apple cementing its place as the dominant player in this emerging and profitable market.

And that, my friends, is why I believe Apple should (and will) come out with a 7-in. iPad.