The long-running rumor that Apple might release a smaller, less costly version of the iPad is building. There's widespread speculation that Apple might announce this device as early as October 17 -- just in time for the holiday-buying season.
If the fabled iPad Mini exists (Apple, as is its custom with new products, steadfastly refuses to confirm this), what might make this device worth buying?
Apple founder Steve Jobs might be rolling in his grave about this notable departure from his design vision. In 2010 Jobs famously dismissed the 7-inch tablet, saying in an Apple earnings call: "It's meaningless unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of their present size."
Then in 2011 (just before Jobs' death) Amazon debuted its Android-based Kindle Fire tablet -- with prices that currently range from $99 to $299, and with 7- and 8.9-inch display options. By contrast, the iPad still offers only a 9.7-inch display and prices start at $500 -- nearly a third higher than the cost of the largest and most sophisticated Kindle Fire, and a whopping five times the price of the lowest-end Kindle Fire.
So far Amazon has sold an estimated 5 million Kindle Fires, making it the world's second-most popular tablet after the iPad.
The iPad recently has lost substantial ground in the tablet market. According to a recent Pew report, as of this summer 52% of all tablets in use in the United States are iPads, markedly down from 81% a year earlier. Also, nearly as many people (48%) own Android-based tablets, and nearly half of those (21%) are Kindle Fires.
Despite Jobs' biases, there is evidently ample market demand for smaller, cheaper tablets. Of course, these devices cannot -- and are not attempting to -- rival the user experience of a full-size iPad. Apple fans often float that red herring, but it's not really the point.
Not every would-be tablet user wants or can afford a full-size iPad. And that's OK.
Probable iPad Mini features
Smaller tablets do offer considerable value in a form factor that, unlike the iPad, fits easily into a typical pocket or purse. Also unlike the iPad, these devices can even be used single-handedly. This makes smaller tablets far more "mobile" (in the sense of whipping them out anywhere and using them standing up) than the iPad.
So far the Kindle Fire only offers Wi-Fi connectivity (as does the lowest-cost iPad), which limits where it can be used as an Internet-connected device. But other small Android tablets can connect to wireless carriers' 3G and 4G data networks.
For instance, Samsung's Galaxy Tab family of Android tablets includes 7-inch 4G models for all major U.S. carriers, plus a 7.7-inch model on Verizon only -- at prices starting around $300. By comparison, 4G versions of the third-generation iPad start at $649, on Verizon and AT&T only.
A tablet that's easier to carry around and use on the go, at as little as one-fifth the starting price of an iPad? These are considerable advantages that already have influenced millions of consumer purchases.
If and when Apple debuts the iPad Mini, I expect that this device will probably feature a display size around 7 to 7.8 inches. There will probably be Wi-Fi only and at least two carrier-specific 4G models (Verizon and AT&T).
Furthermore, it's Tim Cook's Apple now. And Cook has witnessed the impact that smaller, lower-cost tablets have had on the tablet market in just one year. Tablets are becoming a commodity product, so if you make them, it's unwise to ignore any important market segment.
Most importantly, to appeal to the small-tablet consumer market, Apple probably will need to limit the iPad Mini starting price to about $150 to $200. Consequently, the lowest-end iPad Mini may only offer 8 gigabytes of built-in memory -- and I'm betting that no iPad Mini will offer Apple's high-end Retina display.
Apple is accustomed to positioning itself as a premium product, and its track record and devoted fan base probably warrants this. So there's no need for Apple to match the $99 price tag of the lowest-end Kindle Fire (and other comparable low-end Android tablets currently being sold).
Why I might buy one
Right now I don't own any tablet device, but I'd like to buy a small tablet for myself this holiday season. If Apple does launch the iPad Mini, I'd consider it -- mainly because as a mobile technology reporter, I probably should own at least one iOS device.
That's an admittedly rare and not terribly urgent purchase motivation, so I am also considering a small Android tablet -- specifically Google's Nexus 7. I already own a Galaxy Nexus Android phone, running Jellybean. I prefer Android devices that come with the stock version of that mobile operating system, so I receive prompt system updates straight from Google. The base Nexus 7 tablet costs $199 (Wi-Fi only, 8GB).
Here's what the iPad Mini would have to offer to sway my personal buying decision.
• Starting price $200 or less for Wi-Fi only, 8GB. Alternatively I'd be willing to pay up to about $250 for an iPad Mini offering 4G connectivity that I could use on my existing Verizon "Share Everything" data plan. (Verizon would charge $10 a month to add a tablet to my plan; I'd try that for a couple of months to see if I really used 4G much on the tablet.)
• A display at least comparable in quality to the Nexus 7 (which I'm sure Apple could easily meet or exceed, even at a low price point).
• The latest version of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS6, with a guarantee that it would also be able to run the inevitable iOS 7 update expected in the next year. (Or if not, a guarantee that I would be able to upgrade my iPad Mini in a year for $50 or less.)
• The immediate availability of a reasonably priced Bluetooth keyboard that would be no larger than the iPad Mini, or a combination iPad Mini keyboard/case (perhaps similar to this Targus product).