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

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 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.)

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

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