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With iPad mini, Apple shoulders maximal expectations

Steve Jobs once famously called 7-inch tablets "useless" and "DOA", claiming you needed at least a 10-inch screen to have anything approaching a great user experience. As Apple prepares to launch an iPad mini with a slightly larger — 7.85-inch — screen, it's becoming increasingly clear that that devices in this size range are anything but useless.

While earlier 7-inch models, like Samsung's first-generation Galaxy Tab and Research In Motion's PlayBook, largely flopped, it wasn't because of size. These early examples suffered from questionable performance — Samsung's device was notably pokey — and incomplete functionality, with the PlayBook's first iteration missing critical productivity apps. These initial devices proved that consumers weren't willing to give up basic functionality in exchange for a low price. Updated 7-inch tablets have since rewritten the script — and in doing so have given Apple additional reason to shrink its 9.7-inch iPad a bit. When it bows, the iPad mini will face off against a growing range of competitors:

  • Amazon Kindle Fire. Although it isn't yet available in Canada, and is largely considered a cheap, feature-limited gateway into Amazon's online universe, the device is nevertheless forcing competitors to seriously rethink their price/performance strategy. An entry level version, introduced last year for $199 U.S., dropped to $159 when it was updated last month.

  • Google Nexus 7 — The web services giant's Android-everywhere strategy got a boost with the launch of its self-branded tablet. Unhappy with tepid market penetration figures among its hardware partners, Google's device was the first to sport the latest Jelly Bean (4.1) version of Android. Its capabilities are well beyond the $209 Cdn. price for an 8 Gb model.

  • Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 — While Samsung's earlier efforts were largely forgettable, its recently introduced $250 unit marries upgraded hardware and software into a much more capable device. It still won't knock off the iPad, but at half the price, it doesn't need to.

Beyond the competition, Apple's biggest challenge could be price. Its just-refreshed iPod touch starts at $300 Cdn., while further up the food chain, the iPad 2 — essentially a bargain alternative to the $519-to-start third-generation iPad — goes for $419. This doesn't leave much room for Apple to play, and will disappoint buyers who had been hoping for a $200 to $250 iPad. Without a complete revamp of Apple's pricing structure — highly unlikely — expect the iPad mini to slot in somewhere around $350 to $375.

While Apple never pre-announces anything, invitations to the media event are expected to go out within the next couple of weeks, which could mean launch and retail availability by month's end. Pricing and competitive positioning details aside, extending the iPad franchise downward is the logical next step for Apple as it tries to extend its dominance in an increasingly crowded market.

It may have once been unthinkable for Steve Jobs to bring anything smaller than a 9.7-inch iPad to market. But it's been a year since his death, and the company he founded is already evolving under Tim Cook's leadership. What was once inviolable is now almost real as shifting technologies and a tightening marketplace force Apple to go where its founder promised it never would.

Expect the process to continue: just as demand for 7-inch tablets hits its stride on newly-mature offerings in the space, a new wave of 8.9-inch devices is already finding its way into the retail channel. Like laptops before them, tablets are proving that one size does not fit all.

In that respect, the iPad mini could be the harbinger of an even more device-diverse future for Apple. If this kind of strategy worked for the iPod, it'll work here, too.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.