iPad mini and uncertain differentiation

Tech Life

Yesterday I learnt — via this post on Michael Tsai’s blog — that the iPad mini has basically reached the end of the line.

My first reactions are in line with Tsai and Nick Heer’s. Tsai writes:

That’s a shame. Maybe the iPad mini hasn’t been selling well because it’s been neglected. The full-size iPad is too big and heavy for my liking. I’ve actually been hoping for a smaller and lighter iPad mini, more like a Kindle. As a fan of the iPhone SE, the fact that Apple sells a 5.5-inch phone does nothing to help my tablet needs. I don’t want a big phone, or a second phone. If they had a 5.5–6.5-inch iPod touch, that could be interesting, though it wouldn’t be able to run true iPad apps.

Heer writes:

I’ll miss the Mini, though. Quite apart from size, the weight difference between the Mini and the 9.7-inch iPad makes the smaller model so much nicer to hold with one hand. The Mini also has the highest-density display that ships in any iPad which, combined with the weight and size, makes it perfect for reading.

(Emphasis mine in both quotes)

I’ve never been the target audience for a small-size iPad, not because I’m one of those people who prefer to have just one big iPhone for everything; rather, I’m among those who greatly prefer the combination of a small iPhone and a regular 9.7-inch iPad. I also believe this combination — although being more expensive to maintain — is the one that delivers the best phone and tablet experience. The phone (with the iPhone 5/5s/SE form factor) has a big-enough screen, is easily pocketable, and can still be used comfortably with one hand. Using a tablet instead of an oversized phone has the advantage of apps with optimised UI, apps and games that are way more convenient and enjoyable on a tablet’s bigger screen, and why not, better battery life among other things.

But this doesn’t mean a device like the iPad mini doesn’t make sense. Not everybody likes the ‘one big iPhone fits all’ solution, and not everybody necessarily likes big iPads to use along with their smaller iPhones either. The current iPad mini 4 is a powerful device in a small package, and I think it’s perfect for people who, like Tsai and Heer, like a lightweight tablet that can be easily held one-handed, and like using it especially for reading, as if it were a kind of Kindle on steroids. Perhaps if Apple had taken the opportunity to better highlight what a great combination the iBooks Store and the iPad mini make, that could have driven more iPad mini sales. Perhaps if Apple had introduced the first iPad mini with a retina display already, more people would have found it a more attractive proposition from the start. There was a moment where I did believe the iPad mini could be a serious competitor to Amazon’s Kindle. It’s a pity Apple didn’t share the same belief.

In general, I think the iPad mini is a victim of a process I like to call uncertain differentiation. To speak plainly, I believe that when Apple started introducing different sizes in the iPad product line, they created a bit of a mess, bewildering customers and possibly diluting the success of the iPad. I call it uncertain differentiation because it’s not that introducing iPads in different sizes was a bad idea per se; it wasn’t. The bad idea has been not creating compelling-enough cases for the various iPad formats. The iPad mini: smaller and lighter than a regular iPad and… that’s it. That was the pitch. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro: bigger screen, more powerful hardware than a regular iPad… Okay, and it also supports the Pencil and can do some ‘pro’ things. That’s basically it. Not differentiated enough (software-wise) to justify the creation of a ‘pro’ line.

Over the years, from what I have observed, customers have responded rather clearly, despite Apple’s involuntary attempts at bewildering them — the original 9.7-inch is still the preferred size. The iPad mini and the big iPad Pro haven’t been compelling enough, for different reasons. And since customers love the 9.7-inch size, let’s create a bit of interference by having a 9.7-inch ‘pro’ and ‘non-pro’ iPads, another example of bland, uncertain differentiation. And since the 5th-generation iPad is proving to be a success, let’s see if we can differentiate a bit more by (according to rumours) planning to introduce “a redesigned iPad Pro to be launched this summer that should offer everything the current 9.7-inch iPad features, but in a smaller footprint with a larger 10.5-inch display.”

Perhaps I’m speaking out of cynicism, but to me this whole post-Jobs iPad strategy feels too much like a “let’s throw different ideas and see what sticks” approach. Nick Heer observes:

Geller also mentions that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is being replaced this summer with a 10.5-inch model, a rumour which has been corroborated by multiple websites. However, no report I’ve seen yet mentions the 12.9-inch Pro, and that doesn’t make any sense to me: the 9.7-inch Pro was introduced more recently than its larger sibling and has features that the bigger model still doesn’t, like a True Tone display and higher-quality cameras. It would surprise me if Apple updated the 9.7-inch Pro first, or didn’t make a meaningful upgrade to the 12.9-inch model at the same time — yet, I haven’t seen a single rumour about the big iPad Pro. Very peculiar.

My thoughts exactly. I happen to love the 12.9-inch form factor, and if I could afford it, I’d upgrade from my old iPad 3 in a heartbeat. I really hope Apple is planning to revitalise the big iPad Pro through the addition of specific features and differentiating capabilities in iOS 11. I’d hate to see the 12.9-inch iPad Pro ending up like the mini — a withered branch of the iPad tree — just because Apple wasn’t able to convincingly push it, thus squandering its potential. I know, it’s a trite exercise, but sometimes I wonder how would Jobs have handled the iPad evolution. My guess is that the iPad lineup would be simpler, with less differentiation in nomenclature, and more differentiation in actual features and capabilities.

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