iPad Mini still missing the killer context

Apple's iPad Mini plans are, if the leaks are anything to go by, shaping up for a launch later in 2012, but hardware is only half the story: Apple needs a solid context with which to frame its smaller slate. One of the company's most significant strengths is not only launching new devices, but telling us why we should want them and how they're "perfect" for our lives. However, with Steve Jobs' scathing comments about "tweener" tablets still ringing strong, how will Apple sell us that this is a sensible inevitability not a blushing backtrack?

Jobs' argument was that a 7-inch tablet was simply too small for adult hands to use the UI properly. "While one could increase the resolution of the display to make up for some of the difference," he justified, "it is meaningless unless your tablet also includes sandpaper so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of their present size."

Now, it wouldn't be the first time that Apple has said it insists on doing one thing, and then promptly does something else. Nonetheless, holding back from the 7-inch tablet market and then diving in with a new iPad Mini would be one of the biggest turnarounds to-date. It'll take more than the famed "reality distortion field" to give a smaller tablet some believable justification.

Perhaps that context will be what Apple has learned from a few generations of iPad. When Steve Jobs made his sweeping dismissal of 7-inchers, it was back in October 2010; the original iPad had only been on sale since April that year, and stock was seriously constrained for several months. In some ways, Jobs was commenting blind; or, at least, based on Apple's own opinions around tablet use rather than what the market was telling them.

In the intervening period, we've seen tablets overshadow ereaders in many ways, while smartphones have grown in scale to the 5.3-inch monsters from Samsung and others. Apple has launched iBooks Textbooks, too, pushing the iPad further into eduction settings. We've also seen Retina Display technology arrive, refining the resolution of the interface. As we speculated yesterday, Apple might see Retina as an essential addition to the iPad Mini if it's to fit into the overall strategy of the firm.

So, could Tim Cook take the stage and push ebook and digital textbook consumption as a primary goal of the iPad Mini? "Since we launched the iPad, we've seen it enter markets we hardly dreamed of back in 2010" the Apple CEO might say. "Readers, both at home and at school, have seized on the iPad as a magical way of exploring new literary worlds and expanding their horizons; now, we're lowering the cost of entry to all that, and we're making it even easier to take knowledge with you."

Apple is stubborn when it feels it needs to be – it waited out the Flash argument until Adobe conceded defeat and adopted HTML5, for instance – but it's also not afraid to do an about-turn if it smells a new market it can cash in on. The time may be right for a "tweener"; the big question is how Apple might convince us that time is now.

[Image credit: Ciccaresedesign]