By MG Siegler
Will Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) make a 7 inch iPad? That's the question being batted around yet again. The true answer right now is easy: I don't know. No one does. Most likely not even Apple. They're undoubtedly thinking about it. And may even have to make a call soon. But it has probably not been decided just yet. But that's a lame answer. Let's sexy it up using history, logic, and common sense.
Will Apple make a 7 inch iPad?
This topic came up Thursday because of remarks John Gruber made during a podcast he records on a weekly basis with Dan Benjamin. When Benjamin asked Gruber about the possibility of Apple making a 7 inch tablet, Gruber responded: "Well, I don't know. What I do know is that they have one in the lab. A 7.85 inch iPad that runs at 1024×768. It's just like the regular iPad shrunk down a bit."
This should surprise no one. Apple has many prototypes of various devices in different stages of the product lifecycle. They probably have a few other variations of the iPad as well, and they probably have for years (pre-dating the iPhone even). Most prototypes never see the light of day. But I believe this one that Gruber is talking about will.
Again, I have no actual inside information here. But just think about it for a second.
Apple views the iPad as the future of general computing. They already sell in far greater quantity than Macs (and every other PC). And Apple drops hints from time to time that the category may even eventually be bigger than the crown jewel of their entire kingdom: the iPhone.
Apple may or may not be able to take the iPad to such heights with one form factor. But it will be a lot easier if they have two.
Apple often starts product lines with the Henry Ford mentality: "You can have any color as long as it's black." Mac, MacBook, iMac, iPod, etc. As the product matures, so does the offering. New form factors. New sizes.
The one major exception, of course, is the iPhone. It has always had the 3.5 inch screen even as the competition has gone bigger - sometimes ridiculously so. But you can certainly make the argument that the iPhone exception is the right call. A mobile phone has to be portable enough to carry around all the time comfortably. And you want to be able to use it with one hand (thumb reach). And given Apple's preference towards pixel-perfect design, keeping the screen the same size ensures apps are relatively uniform.
The iPad doesn't have the same constraints. At 9.7 inches, you obviously can't carry it in your pocket. Nor can you use it with one hand. The proportional design aspect remains true (the iPad ratio exactly doubled the iPhone ratio), but as Gruber points out, a 7.85 inch screen running at the original iPad's 1024×768 resolution would keep things simple for developers. It could work. And it will.
But wait, won't users have to whittle down their fingers with sandpaper to use a 7 inch screen? Steve Jobs did in fact suggest this a few times. But he said a lot of things. In fact, if you look throughout the history of Apple, you can often predict that Apple is eventually going to do something if Jobs implied in the past that they never would. Look at your iPad right now. There's plenty of room to shrink things a bit. Apps and their attributes just have to remain basically in proportion.
But even at a high level, all of this is too technical. The bottom line is that there isn't a week that goes by without someone coming up to me and gushing about the iPad, but wishing it was a bit smaller. Not everyone feels this way, of course. And that's why Apple will keep the 9.7 inch model as well. But there are plenty of folks out there who want a smaller version.
The fact of the matter is that the iPad is great at many things and the list is constantly expanding. But it's not great for holding up for prolonged periods of time in certain settings. This is problematic for say, reading in bed. It's not that it's too heavy, it's not. But the large size does make it a bit clunky at times. A 7 inch iPad would be perfect in many of those situations.
Of course, that alone would not be enough for Apple to do the smaller iPad. But like the iPod mini (and nano), Apple understands the mentality that smaller is often better in the eyes of many. The mini and nano eventually became far more popular than the original iPod. (Some) options are important. None more so than pricing options.
The Kindle Fire has a 7-inch screen. It's $199. By most accounts, it's pretty poor when compared to the iPad. But that isn't stopping millions of people from buying them. $199 to $499 (the entry-level new iPad) is a big jump. Even $199 to $399 (the iPad 2′s new price) is a big jump. If Apple can sell the iPad 2 at $399 with a healthy margin, imagine what they could do with a smaller-screen iPad? I wouldn't rule out $299.
Paying $199 for a 7 inch Kindle Fire versus $299 for a 7.85 inch iPad would be a significantly harder call for many consumers. For many others, it would be an obvious one: get the iPad.
Also consider the forthcoming Google-branded tablet. While few details are known about it, everything leaking out suggest a very competitive price compared to the Kindle Fire, and as such, likely a similar form factor. In the two years since the iPad first launch, everyone has tried and failed to compete directly against Apple. The only avenue getting any traction is this smaller and cheaper Kindle Fire. And it's only getting some traction because it's a space where Apple is simply not competing. Yet.
Consider the 11-inch MacBook Air versus the 13-inch MacBook Air. I've had both models. The reality is that they're not all that different. The 11 is (obviously) smaller and lighter, but the 13 is pretty damn small and light compared to just about any other notebook ever created. Still, Apple offers both. Consider also the MacBook Pro line. 13 inch. 15 inch. 17 inch. The reality again is that they're not all that much different on a macro level. But Apple still offers all of them.
You could certainly argue that a 7 inch iPad versus a 9 inch iPad is a more meaningful difference since you have to be holding it all the time to use it. You'll notice it more. Some people will prefer one size. Some will prefer the other. In some cases, it will depend on the circumstance. Plenty of folks will probably buy both. A 7 inch for the kids, a 9 inch for the grownups, for example. Or maybe a 9 inch for work and a 7 inch for home.
I also suspect that like the difference in laptop sizes, the smaller iPad would come less juiced-up in the spec category. Since the spec is dead, Apple probably won't play this up much, but to keep costs down, maybe the smaller iPad would have a last-generation chip. Or maybe it would have a slightly less powerful one than the current generation 9 inch iPad.
Maybe it would also have less storage. Or maybe the high range of the storage options would simply be less. Apple will clearly soon move to a 128 GB option for the 9 inch iPad and drop the 16 GB option. Maybe a 7 inch iPad would start at 16 GB and only give the option to go up to 64 GB.
Maybe the 7 inch would have slightly less battery life due to less physical space for a battery. Or maybe it would be the same because the smaller screen would draw less power.
Lots of possibilities. The point is, I suspect that with the 7 inch iPad, Apple would vary more than just the screen size. It would be the most important difference, but not the only one. And it would result in Apple selling a ton of both models. And it would drive even more revenue and profit Apple's way while keeping their rivals at bay.
I'm basically writing this post so that when Apple does release a 7 inch iPad at some point in the future, I can point back here and say "I told you so". Cause I did. The option is just sitting on the table waiting for Apple to pounce. This is about the future of computing. It's about expanding the brand. It's about securing the stake. It makes sense. It will happen.