Not as big as the new iPad; not as small as the iPhone 5 or iPod touch; it’s Apple’s own “tweener” and by all rights and intents the iPad mini should be nothing more than a gap filler. Yet anticipation is high for the presumed 7.85-inch iOS tablet, and while spirits always tend to get, well, spirited in advance of an Apple event, sometimes the justification seems more inexplicable than others. Arguably, in the context of the tablet market – and post-PC computing as a whole – Microsoft’s Surface is far, far more important than the iPad mini.
Windows 8 is the centerpiece of Microsoft’s next-gen OS strategy – the hub of desktop and mobile computing, as well as pulling together Windows Phone 8 and Xbox gaming – and the company’s future as an industry heavyweight is dependent on it getting that right. That also means showing how Windows RT – as on the first Surface model – fits into that equation, something so far we’re yet to see summed up in a consistent, easily communicated message.
As Microsoft’s Surface chiefs pointed out, though, their tablet project approaches slates from a different direction to others already in the market. Windows RT may be a pared-back version of Windows 8, but it’s still Windows-from-the-desktop boiled down into tablet form. In contrast, iOS on the iPad and Android on tablets running Google’s OS both take their cue from phones scaled up. What will be really interesting – and deserves attention – is seeing how full apps translate to finger-use and whether the detachable keyboard accessories Microsoft is so proud of turn out to be essential rather than just eye-catching.
With some calculated timing, though, Apple knocked Surface from the top of the headline pile: the preorder news had its few minutes of attention, only to be swallowed up by the invite for Apple’s event next week. Yet in comparison with Surface – which, for Microsoft is pivotal – an iPad mini would simply be filling in a line-up gap for Apple. So why all the attention?
In no small part, it’s because the biggest challenge Apple has to overcome with the iPad mini is… Apple itself. More accurately, it’s iconic founder Steve Jobs who has to be disproved, after he so vocally and memorably blasted smaller-than-iPad models back in 2010. Tablets that size, Jobs pointed out, don’t just offer a slightly reduced display area of 9.7-inch iPad, but a considerably smaller touchscreen to play with. Vendors would need to supply sandpaper, he joked, so that users could file down their fingers in order to tap on-screen graphics with any degree of accuracy.
Jobs was undoubtedly a master of misdirection – telling you today that Apple had no intention of entering a segment, then launching a product to do just that tomorrow – but with his near-deification since his passing last year, and his comments on tablets still getting broadly circulated, all eyes will be on how Apple itself has addressed those complaints. If the iPad mini really is just a smaller iPad (which you may recall is, according to some, just a larger iPhone) then there’s a legitimate question of whether Jobs was actually talking codswallop back in 2010. Just as the iPod nano does its touchscreen interface differently to the iPod touch, taking into account the smaller display size, so Apple needs to demonstrate that there really was a challenge to overcome, and prove that it alone has addressed it.
Looking more broadly, though, all eyes are on the iPad mini because of doubts in the small tablet segment as a whole. When Steve Jobs roundly dismissed 7-inch “tweeners” as unnecessary and useless in the market, that’s because at the time they were pretty much pointless. 7-inch as a form-factor has, so far failed, unless it’s been cheap as chips like Google’s Nexus 7. That, with the heft of Google branding and a strongly competitive price – two Android tablets for the price of one iPad – has made the Nexus 7 the exception not the rule so far.
Apple may have to compromise to make the iPad mini a success, and compromise is not something the company does all too often. Too ambitious, too whizz-bang, and the smaller iPad won’t be able to hit a competitive price point. Too humble, or built to too strict a budget, and it will lack the premium cachet the brand is known for. The smaller devices are, often the more complex they are to piece together – gathering the right blend of components for a tiny phone is more of a challenge than for a 10-inch tablet, where they may be a little extra wiggle room to play with.
The iPad mini lacks that room to wiggle, and the excitement around the product launch isn’t simply because lots of people want a smaller tablet (though some undoubtedly do) but because we want to see whether a firm with a track-record of convincing consumers it has solved the equation can do the same under arguably tougher constraints. The world may not need a “tweener” iPad, but if Apple decides that it range does, then it needs to demonstrate it can do it with more than just a bloated iPod touch or a shrunken new iPad.
SlashGear will be liveblogging the whole iPad mini event at live.slashgear.com from 10am PT on Tuesday, October 23; for more on Microsoft Surface, check out our behind-the-scenes tour with the Surface team.