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Could the 7-inch iPad Signify a Shift in Apple’s Direction?

Update: Jonathan Gruber of Daring Fireball presents a great argument on why the smaller iPad is something that Apple would do. Link to that article here. Thanks Observer for highlighting this to us in the comments.

Before we begin, read through this excerpt from an Apple earnings call back in 2010. The iPad was just launched and to counter the threat, Android manufacturers begun churning out tablets of their own. Most notably was the original Galaxy Tab, which had a 7-inch screen and could be used to make native phone calls and send text messages. Steve Jobs was quick to dismiss these early 7-inch Android tablets as failures, as products that were “Dead on Arrival”.

In his own words:

I’d like to comment on the avalanche of tablets poised to enter the market in the coming months. First, it appears to be just a handful of credible entrants, not exactly an avalanche. Second, almost all of them use 7-inch screens as compared to iPad’s near 10-inch screen.

Let’s start there.

One naturally thinks that a 7-inch screen would offer 70% of the benefit of a 10-inch screen. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. The screen measurements are diagonal so that a 7-inch screen is only 45% as large as the iPad’s 10-inch screen. You heard me right, just 45% as large. If you take an iPad and hold it upright in portrait view draw an imaginary horizontal line halfway down the screen, the screens on these 7-inch tablets are a bit smaller than the bottom half of the iPad’s display. This size isn’t sufficient to create great tablet apps in our opinion

While one could increase the resolution of the display to make up for some of the difference, it is meaningless unless you tablet also includes sandpaper so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of their present size. Apple has done extensive user testing on touch interfaces over many years and we really understand this stuff. There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touch screen before users cannot reliably tap, flick or pinch them. This is one of the key reasons we think the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.

First, every tablet user is also a smartphone user. No tablet can compete with the mobility of a smartphone, its ease of fitting into your pocket or purse, its unobtrusiveness when used in a crowd. Given that all tablet users would already have a smartphone in their pockets, giving up precious display area to fit a tablet in their pocket is clearly the wrong trade-off. The 7-inch tablets are tweeners, too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with an iPad.

Fourth, almost all of these new tablets use Android software but even Google is telling tablet manufacturers not to use their current release, FroYo, for tablets and to wait for a special tablet release next year. What does it mean when your software supplier says not to use their software in your tablet and what does it mean when you ignore them and use it anyway.

Fifth, iPad now has over 35,000 apps on the App Store, this new crop of tablets will have near zero.

And sixth and last, our potential competitors are having a tough time coming close to iPad’s pricing even with their far smaller, far less expensive screen. The iPad incorporates everything we’ve learned about building high-value products from iPhones, iPods and Macs. We create our own A4 chips, our own software, our own battery chemistry, our own enclosures, our own everything, and this results in an incredible product at a great price. The proof of this will be in the pricing of our competitors’ products, which will likely offer less for more.

These are among the reasons we thing the current crop of 7-inch tablets re going to be D.O.A., Dead-on-Arrival. Their manufacturers will learn the painful lesson that their tablets are too small and increase the size next year, thereby abandoning both customers and developers to jump on the 7-inch bandwagon with an orphan product. Sounds like lots of fun ahead.

Fast forward to the present and rumors of a 7-inch iPad still persist. If fact, the rumours are starting to look like they are true with reports from Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal strongly supporting the existence of a 7-inch iPad. The thing is, Steve Jobs himself back in 2010 ridiculed 7-inch tablets and dismissed them as “tweeners”, too big to compete with smartphones and too small to compete with the iPad.

So if Apple is indeed working on a 7-inch tablet, does it mean that Jobs was wrong from the start? Let’s not forget that there are some very successful 7-inch tablets in the market right now. In the US, there’s the Kindle Fire and the Nook. In Malaysia, the sub 8-inch Samsung Galaxy Tabs are very popular too.

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Jobs talks about a 7-inch tablet not being able to deliver the optimum touch interface user experience and he goes on to say that Apple’s own extensive tests reveal that a 10-inch tablet is the only form-factor that can deliver a great user experience.

We’ve used 7-inch tablets and to be honest, we can’t find a great deal wrong with them. Usability-wise, we like the balance between mobility and functionality that a 7-inch tablet brings. Yes, it is a trade-off and in certain expects, 7-inchers can’t and will never be better than a 10-inch tablet (watching video is one, browsing the web is another) but we wouldn’t go as far to say that 7-inch tablets are DOA – but then again, we’re not Steve Jobs.

So back to Steve Jobs then, he derided 7-inch tablets. To him, these smaller tablets would not be able to deliver the trademark Apple experience, the experience that made the iPad and the iPhone so successful all these while, and yet now here we are, presumably on the verge of Apple producing a device that its founder was so passionate opposed of.

If Apple does indeed produce the much rumoured 7-inch iPad, what does that mean? What is its significance? To us, at the very least, the 7-inch iPad marks a shift in Apple’s direction and at the very most, the smaller iPad signifies the true death of Steve Jobs.

The soul of Steve Jobs is Apple. Not even the smallest decision was made without him giving the go ahead. Knowing that, the existence of a 7-inch iPad could very well mean that the soul…the spirit…the essence of Jobs is no longer in Apple. And we this going two ways, it’s either the beginning of new and exciting things from Apple or it could mean the beginning of the end for Apple’s leading role in the mobile industry.

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Of course, those in the Apple camp will argue that a 7-inch tablet, or more accurately, a sub-8-inch one, would still meet the user interface guidelines for iOS and the user experience would be much like on the iPhone. While that could be true, we would think Jobs knew this as well. After all, he created the iPhone and the iPad, no one would’ve known what the iOS can and cannot do better than him.

Yet, based on this, he still was against 7-inch tablets. One could argue that two years ago when he said what he said about 7-inch tablets, it was done strategically so that he could position his products in a better light. And while that might be true, wouldn’t he have thought of the ramifications of taking such an opposing stance on a product that his company would be making just two years down the line? It’s very possible that Jobs could have chosen numerous other angles and perspectives to position the iPad above the 7-inch tablets back then. Yet, he still chose to dismiss them as failures, why?

Jobs was a very smart man, some called him a genius and we can agree with this. Everything he said and did would have been precisely measured to fit in his vision and his vision of Apple. So the question is, is a 7-inch iPad a part of Jobs’ vision?

We don’t think so.