Seven inches may be the new black when it comes to tablets. Research In Motion, Samsung and Viewsonic are all hoping to cash in on the market with seven-inch devices, and we’re sure to see more similarly sized gadgets as a crush of new tablets come to market in the next several months. The audience for such devices could be as diverse as it is large: Gartner last week predicted media tablet sales will reach 19.5 million this year and will nearly triple next year. And smaller tablets than the iPad could appeal to a variety of individuals, from road warriors who want a less bulky tablet to casual users who just want to play Cut the Rope and check out Facebook and YouTube on the go. So why isn’t Apple countering with a smaller version of its enormously popular iPad?
That’s what I’ve been wondering ever since Steve Jobs went on a bit of a rant last month during an earnings call, saying a seven-inch tablet “is meaningless” without sandpaper “so that the user can sand down their fingers to about one-quarter of their present size.” I understand Jobs’ point — to a degree — but I think there are several compelling reasons for Apple to offer a shrunken version of the iPad:
1) Low production costs and Apple’s strategy of “incremental.” Apple reportedly developed a seven-inch iPad as it built the 9.7-inch version that’s currently on the market, so most of the investment in building the smaller gadget has already been done. And as Dean Bubley recently noted, Apple’s strategy of churning out incremental products and generating incremental profits has paid huge dividends for the Cupertino gang. A smaller iPad would enable Apple to fill in the void between its iPod touch and the current full-sized tablet without spending a fortune.
2) Increasing competition, increasing variety. With dozens of tablets set to launch over the next couple of quarters, users will have a wide variety of sizes, features and operating systems to choose from. Apple’s enormous App Store is a key differentiator over BlackBerry’s App World, which boasts all of 10,000 titles. And its trusted brand would surely sway some users away from buying a small Android tablet, because a seven-inch iPad could crush competing devices before they have a chance to gain any momentum.
3) More portability. The current iPad is the perfect coffee-table tablet and is ideal for watching video, browsing the web or passing back and forth to play Scrabble. But it’s cumbersome on the go. A smaller version could fit into a purse or maybe even a coat pocket, making the iPad far more mobile than it is today but not nearly as cramped as the iPhone or iPod touch.
4) The apps. Jobs claimed that the iPad’s current screen is necessary to fully leverage the device and run the kind of software that differentiates a tablet from a smartphone or even a PDA. It’s true that some apps take full advantage of that real estate — Netflix’s offering, for example — and many enterprise/productivity apps are much easier to use on the bigger screen. But a quick look at the top iPad apps reveals many to be blown-up versions of iPhone apps. I don’t think current hits like Angry Birds, Let’s Golf! or the Food Network app would lose a lot of appeal if they were pared down a bit.
I understand that Apple doesn’t have to expand its tablet lineup yet — it clearly dominates the market that the iPad essentially created. And as I said a few weeks ago, there’s little evidence that anyone else can put much of a dent in iPad sales anytime soon. But there could be a substantial market for a tablet that sacrifices some features and functionality in exchange for more portability. Apple would be wise to reconsider passing on the chance to tap it.