I Won’t Buy an iPad Mini—But Parents and Schools Will

10/12/12Follow @wroush

Until recently, I was an iPad Mini denier. A tablet with a 7- or 8-inch screen feels like the worst of both worlds to me—too big for simple e-reading, too small for serious Web browsing, games, and photos.

And Apple has historically been a creator, not a joiner, so the idea that the company would want to jump on the mid-size tablet bandwagon and compete with the likes of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, RIM, and Samsung just seems out of character to me. Very un-Jobsian, in a word. So I chose to believe that the rumors were untrue, and that they’d eventually die down.

But they haven’t. The drumbeat of speculation has continued to build, fueled by alleged leaks from Apple and its manufacturing partners. Given the high accuracy of many recent pre-event leaks—virtually all of the details about the iPad 3 and the iPhone 5 were known in advance of Apple’s formal announcements—it’s pretty hard to stay in denial.

The consensus building among the Apple rumor-mongers seems to be that the company will use an upcoming press event (possibly on Oct. 17 Oct. 23) to unveil a slimmed-down iPad with a 7.85-inch diagonal screen. That would make the device about as tall as the existing iPad is wide, and would leave it with two-thirds as much screen real estate as the current 9.7-inch iPad screen. People think the cost of the device will be around $250 or $300—substantially below the price of the iPad 3—and that Apple will achieve the savings in part by omitting a high-resolution Retina display like the one on the iPhone 5 and the iPad 3.

I would have little interest in buying such a device. This is a first for me: there hasn’t been an Apple product since 2007 that I didn’t immediately want. Which is exactly what set my Spidey-sense tingling when I first heard the rumblings about a smaller iPad.

Now, admittedly, there’s still a chance that my initial instincts are right and the rumors are false; a lot of people thought the iPad Mini announcement would come at the same time as the iPhone 5’s release in September, and they were wrong. But let’s assume that the rumors are accurate. In that case, I’d like to know what Apple is thinking. What’s so attractive about a mid-size tablet that the company would decide to override Steve Jobs’ own 2010 diagnosis that a “10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps”?

There are a number of possible explanations, all of them speculative, some better than others. I don’t buy the idea that Apple is just trying to squelch mid-priced tablet competitors like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 ($249), the latest Kindle Fire ($159), the forthcoming Nook HD ($199), or the Google Nexus 7 ($199). Apple has never shown any discomfort in the past about charging premium prices for its gear and ceding the lower rungs of the market to other companies. That’s what the company is about.

And in any case, Apple is already doing a pretty good job of crushing the competition. It sold 17 million iPads worldwide in the second quarter alone—more than twice as many as all other tablet makers combined. Even as a slew of alternative tablets have hit the market, Apple’s position has only strengthened—its share of the tablet market increased from 61.5 percent in the second quarter of 2011 to 68.2 percent in the second quarter of 2012, according to IDC.

But if the iPad Mini (dubbed the iPad Air by some) isn’t needed as a Kindle or Nexus killer, then what’s it for? Here’s my guess: education.

E-textbooks and digital educational materials, along with the hardware needed to display them, constitute a gigantic market that the tablet makers have only begun to tap. I’m not just talking about the $8 billion that U.S. school districts spend on textbooks, workbooks, and other materials for K-12 students every year, or the additional $10 billion that college students shell out for course materials.

There’s also the indeterminate, but probably even larger, amount that parents spend on non-classroom learning. In 2010, U.S. parents spent $7.5 billion on non-hardware education technology, according to the Software & Information Industry Association—and that was just for pre-kindergarten kids. The test-prep business for pre-college students sucks up another $4 billion per year.

Add up those numbers and you get about $30 billion, conservatively, in potential annual revenue for the companies that come up with the most popular platforms for delivering all this stuff digitally. That’s enough to make even Apple pay attention.

The company is hardly new to the education market. It has long offered educational discounts on Macintosh computers to college students. And the January 2012 release of the iBooks Author software for making iPad-ready e-textbooks was a clear shot across the bow of the textbook industry.

But the current iPad isn’t really ideal as a device for education. It’s got a fast processor and a beautiful screen, but in a school environment it’s got two big countervailing drawbacks.

First, it’s too heavy. A tablet should be light enough that you can grip it in one hand and tap on it with the other, whether you’re a kindergartner or a high school senior (or a senior citizen, for that matter). The iPad 2 and the iPad 3, which weigh in at a hefty 1.5 lbs (660 grams), don’t … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • @fepcapital

    Beyond schools – would love to hear from women out there. My understanding is that a smaller lighter Ipad will also appeal to females who carry a purse and who find the current large Ipad format is to heavy and does not fit into the average size purse! Women are an important market and influence the majority of consumer purchases in most households. Don t be suprised to see wide adoption of a smaller Ipads by single women and mothers who are trapped in cars ferrying kids around and want a larger device than a smart phone but smaller than a full tablet, to read e-mail, magazines, and high school sports.com for directions to the soccer game – in service of there demanding the next gens.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

    @fepcapital, that is an excellent point. I have a second-generation Kindle, which is about the same size as the iPad Mini would be, and it seems very purse-able. It would also fit better in a satchel or briefcase. (I just got back from Italy, and noticed that all of the men there are carrying leather satchels and other types of “manpurses” these days.) So, maybe I’m wrong and there’s a big group of consumers who’d like to carry an Apple tablet but need something smaller than the iPad.

    Here’s one more possibility: as the cost of tablets comes down, we’ll just have lots of them sitting around. I think of this as the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” scenario. In that show (1987-1994) the Enterprise crew used iPad-like devices called PADDs and it wasn’t unusual to see half a dozen of them strewn across Captain Picard’s desk. I used to chuckle at that, because the implication was that each PADD could only show one thing. But maybe we’re approaching an abundance scenario where you have lots of tablets optimized for different settings or applications, or they’re so cheap you can have one on the couch, one at your desk, one in the kitchen, one in your car, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tammy.karn Tammy Smith Karn

    I’m not sure I agree with a lot of your suppositions. I use one iPad with my 6 year old autistic daughter and have another that I use in my classroom of 8th graders – almost every kids “holds” them the same way – they lay them flat on the table and look down. I do have iBallz one each iPad that are designed to protect the corners from collison with the floor and act as a convenient handhold.

    When I walk around or sit and read like now, it set in an iLid that protects the surfaces and gives me something to grip onto as I broadcast around my classroom.

    I understand that smaller is cheaper but many of students struggle with the small images in an iPad and have a difficult time with following along and comprehension if they have to adjust the size as they read. Our visually impaired students like the ability to zoom and increase the size but they get “lost” on the page or can’t find the “button” they need on an app because it’s hidden.

    As far as women preferring a smaller size, I don’t see much of a market there. We adapted to 16 inch laptops and diaper bags – we can find a way to carry an iPad.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

    Hi Tammy — Great to hear from an old friend, how are things in Lansing? It’s interesting to hear that the existing iPad already works well for your daughter and your students. What you’re saying accords with my first instinct, which is that there’s something really useful about a 10-inch screen. In that case, maybe Apple should try to lower the price of the iPad 2 even further. Whatever the real market need — the bottom line is that Apple is the richest company on Earth and they can afford to experiment with versions of the iPad that suit every taste.

  • Sean

    I’m waiting for something I can carry around in my cargo pocket. I’m in the Army and use my iPhone for almost everything I do – to do lists, managing contacts, balancing five or more different calendars, writing notes about projects on the go, etc. I even manage to write memorandums and reports on the iPhone while I’m in the field. The iPad is too big to really be portable and the iPhone is too small to use comfortably for more than a little while. From my point of view, a 7 inch iPad is just the right size. Considering that the iPad 3 isn’t yet powerful enough to really be considered a laptop replacement, I think that a smaller version can bridge the gap between my iPhone and my MacBook Pro.

  • cherimariotti

    I personally would love a smaller iPad that won’t weigh me down while carrying it around in my purse. I have been hearing about the iPad Mini for weeks from a co-worker at DISH and now I can’t stop looking for whatever information I can find on it. I really just want it to be able to take it with me out of the house, especially with all the new shows and new fall season coming up shortly, to watch live TV on the DISH Remote Access app so I don’t have to miss any of my shows this season. I know the price will probably be more than the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire, but I am sure it will be worth it. I cannot wait until they announce the release date.