Acknowledging there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the mobile industry, Apple Inc. is wading into a product category its executives once dismissed as irrelevant.
The company behind the iPad introduced a shrunken version of the world’s most popular tablet on Tuesday. The iPad Mini, with its 7.9-inch screen, is smaller and less expensive than the traditional 10-inch model, but is otherwise similar in form and function. It allows Apple to capitalize on the success of the iPad by targeting customers who may be turned off by the tablet’s size or its price tag.
In recent years, late Apple chief Steve Jobs criticized a new wave of 7-inch tablets – represented at the time by devices such as Research In Motion Ltd.’s PlayBook – as being too small to provide an enjoyable experience. Initially, sales of the PlayBook and similar tablets were underwhelming. But the rise of low-cost tablets using Google’s Android operating system has breathed new life into the low end of the tablet market. Amazon’s smaller-sized Kindle Fire has proven successful enough to be considered a legitimate iPad competitor.
Apple is now reframing its position on smaller-sized tablets, rather than arguing that the entire class of devices isn’t worth pursuing. Its executives now argue that everyone else has simply been doing it wrong.
“Others have tried to make tablets smaller than the iPad and they’ve failed miserably,” said Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing head, at the iPad Mini launch event in San Jose on Tuesday.
But the iPad Mini’s very existence points to Apple’s realization that there is far more competition in the mobile space than even a year or two ago. That competition comes mainly from a slew of smartphones and tablets running on Google’s Android, which the search engine allows almost any manufacturer to use on their hardware for little or no cost. Phones using Android now make up the single biggest portion of the smartphone market, even as Apple continues to generate the most profit.
Much of Android’s appeal comes from its low cost to manufacturers, who can then pass those savings onto consumers in the form of less expensive phones and tablets.
The iPad Mini, which starts at $329 (U.S.) and is about $170 cheaper than the newest full-sized iPad, is designed to prevent a repeat of what Android devices were able to do in the smartphone space – gain a foothold by beating the iPhone on price rather than features. Still, the iPad Mini is remains $100 more expensive than many other 7-inch <QL>tablets on the market.
One of the most memorable parts of Tuesday’s Apple event involved a company executive comparing the iPad Mini with Google’s new 7-inch Nexus tablet – a comparison that was little more than a listings of the Google’s tablet’s perceived failings. That segment, along with Apple’s recent decision to boot Google’s maps application from its mobile devices, leaves little doubt as to whom Apple sees as its most dangerous competition.
The timing is also important. Google’s 7-inch Nexus tablet only recently hit the market. Google is expected to reverse Apple’s strategy in coming weeks, by launching a 10-inch version of the Nexus.
The iPad Mini – which will be available for ordering in Canada and dozens of other countries on Oct. 26, and shipped a week later – was just one of several announcements Tuesday. Apple also unveiled a new version of the <QL>10-inch iPad, which looks much like the previous model but which the company said is twice as fast. Apple also showed off new models of some of its popular computers, including the MacBook Pro and the iMac. Together, the new products leave Apple well-positioned for the holiday shopping season.
There are still questions as to how excited consumers will be about a shrunken iPad, and whether the smaller tablet will end up cannibalizing other Apple products. Still, it comes at a time when sales of Apple’s smartphones and tablets are more brisk than they have ever been.
“Apple has something today they didn’t have in 2010: global distribution,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst with research firm Current Analysis. “They are selling in places where Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t.’ ”