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iPad mini signals Apple evolution

Apple's introduction of its smaller iPad mini doesn't only make its tablet more accessible to a wider audience. It also solidifies the growing family of devices as the core of the company's brand.

The company introduced the downsized tablet at a much anticipated event in San Jose, California. The new tablet sports a 7.9-inch screen, down from 9.7 in the original model, and weighs half as much as the iPad. It lacks the larger unit's high resolution retina screen, but includes front- and rear-facing cameras.

Cheaper, but not cheapest

The new device, which starts at $329 Cdn. for a 16Gb Wi-Fi-only model, lets Apple sell to consumers for whom the $519 entry for a full-sized iPad is too dear. The company has sold 100 million iPads globally since their June 2010 launch, but needed a lower-end model to accelerate takeup and fend off emerging competition.

At the same time, the iPad mini is not so capable that it threatens to cannibalize sales of its larger, more expensive tablets. If anything, the cheaper and lower-margin iPod touch line, which received an iPhone 5-inspired upgrade just last month, now stands ready to be Apple's next prematurely orphaned product.

Apple also announced a number of upgrades to its other product lines:

  • MacBook Pro — a 13-inch retina screen-based model joins the 15-inch high-resolution model introduced earlier this year. The rest of the lineup gets faster processors, bigger drives and improved displays.

  • iMac — the venerable desktop is 80% thinner, loses its optical drive, includes a new solid-state/hard drive hybrid known as a Fusion Deive, loses a bunch of weight and is more energy efficient.

  • Mac mini — The tiny machine, gets a major speed boost, and even includes a server option for small businesses and power users.

  • iPad — The fourth-generation tablet replaces the model introduced just last spring. It includes Apple's new Lightning connector, as well as a faster A6X processor that doubles the performance of the old A5X, an upgraded front-facing camera and faster WiFi and LTE radios.

Beyond the requisite feature bumps and internal product hierarchy shuffling, the iPad mini positions Apple to take on a growing number of competitors in the suddenly crowded 7-inch space. Amazon's Kindle Fire and Samsung's Galaxy Tab lineups continue to mature, with better hardware and software, while Google's Nexus 7 tablet is widely expected to get 3G capability as well as a 10-inch big brother at a product announcement next Monday.

The value of ecosystem

But the real value of the iPad mini, like every i-branded mobile device before it, lies in the apps and services it runs. The premium-priced hardware is far from the only reason people buy it. Between iTunes and an App Store that now hosts 750,000 apps, a third of them designed specifically for the iPad's larger screen, the hardware specs are less consequential for Apple than they might seem. The software ecosystem is what allows Apple to remain competitive against tablets selling for $200 to $250. The Kindle Fire includes a $159 U.S. entry level model, but is largely seen as a feature-limited means of accessing Amazon's online services.

Beyond tablets, Apple's iconic Mac computers aren't going anywhere soon. Although sales softened last quarter, they continue to generate consistent profits, and serve as gateways for the company's growing universe of mobile devices and services. But as the iPad family grows increasingly diverse variants and spreads across the price point spectrum, it's clear where Apple's — and the broader industry's — future lies.

In that context, the iPad mini is less a new piece of hardware than it is a Trojan Horse for Apple's services-based destiny.

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

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