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

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really fit that bill—I can’t hold my own iPad for more than an hour or two without wearing out my fingers and wrists.

Barring some big breakthrough in battery or display technology, the easiest way to make a tablet lighter is to make it smaller. An iPad Mini would presumably be a lot lighter than the iPad 2 or the iPad 3—all the more so if it doesn’t have a Retina display (which necessitates bigger, heavier batteries).

Second, the existing iPad is too expensive. At $499 for a basic 16-gigabyte, Wi-Fi-only version, it’s not an easy purchase, either for a school or for a parent. In a survey, the National Retail Federation found that parents expect to spend an average of $218 this year on education-related electronic devices for their kids. That’s obviously not enough to cover an iPad 3, even if you assume the device will last for a couple of years.

Schools, too, are price-sensitive, as Apple has already discovered: districts bought more than a million iPad 2’s after the company lowered the price of the device to $399 this spring. “The reason we did it was because we believed that the sales would be incrementally larger, that there was price elasticity, and that there was a buyer that wanted the best product and that needed it to be a little less expensive,” CEO Tim Cook said during the company’s last quarterly earnings call in July. “I think it did help our sales … and I am really glad that we did it.”

Again, the easiest way to make the iPad even less expensive would be to make it smaller. Reducing the overall size of the device means you can use a smaller LCD panel, and in a device where the most expensive component is the screen, that lowers the bill of materials drastically.

There’s one more upside to downsizing: a smaller, lighter device is less likely to get dropped on a classroom’s hard floor. And if it’s less expensive, a drop isn’t as much of a catastrophe.

To recap: Size matters more in some markets than others, and I’m arguing that education is the market where it matters most. The iPad Mini (if it’s real) might turn out to be popular with consumers, and it might make Apple customers out of a few people who would otherwise have gravitated to a 7-inch Android tablet.

But I think it’s really aimed at students—and millions of them will probably be asking their parents to buy them one this holiday season. We’re likely to see Apple follow up with a renewed effort to get textbooks into the iBooks Store, and to make it easier to author e-textbooks that look good on mid-size screens.

I fell in love with Apple back in 1987, when I got my first Mac on a student discount program. If Apple can get an iPad Mini into every student’s backpack, I think it’s destined to control a big chunk of the educational technology market, and to win a new generation of fanboys and fangirls.

(Update 10/12/12: There’s already talk that the Oct. 23 press event will be heavy on iBooks news.)

(Update 10/19/12: Analysts are now speculating that Apple will kill of the iPad 2 to help make way for the iPad Mini. That accords with my education hypothesis: If the company wants to give parents and schools a low-cost tablet option, it shouldn’t muddy the waters by offering both a $249 mini-tablet and a $399 full-size tablet.)

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

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