iPad mini

I was hanging out in downtown SF the other day, and of course I had to visit the Apple Store to play with the new iPad Mini. Everyone pretty much ignored the all-new New iPad (let’s refer to it as iPad 4), while there was a 3-deep queue to play with the mini. I even seriously considered buying one on the spot (pending availability). So why are people going gaga over the mini, when the iPad 4 is actually a much bigger refresh in terms of hardware? (iPad 4 is a generational leap in both CPU and graphics performance).

So I’m pretty sure that cost is not the distinguishing factor. Last time I checked, you could buy a refurbished iPad2 for just $349, which is pretty close to the mini’s price. It’s likely that a lot of people don’t know about Apple’s refurbished models, but if cost were the biggest factor, people would be breaking for the Nexus 7 at over $100 less (and they are to some degree, but I’m guessing that Apple will sell a lot more iPad minis than Google sells Nexus 7s).

Retina displays aren’t disruptive

So when we look at the mini more closely, we can start to understand why it’s so great. It basically has the same guts as the iPad 2 (the 2011 model), but in a smaller and lighter package. The screen is about two inches smaller, but the same resolution as the iPad 2. Which gives it a higher pixel density (the dots are closer together) than the iPad 2, but a lower density than the new iPad 4. All of the reviews complain about this, but the reviewers proceed to lavish praise on the mini, and say that it will replace their other iPads.

So there’s a problem with these retina displays that Apple is gradually rolling out on their machines – they are a nice-to-have, but not really disruptive to what we already have. When you look at disruptive technologies (as defined in The Innovator’s Dilemma), they typically enable use cases that their predecessors didn’t (such as allowing devices to be smaller or lighter). There isn’t actually any new use case that a retina display enables, other than being prettier. It’s not like visible pixels in any way diminish the functional experience. Sure a lot of uber-geeks rushed out to buy the Retina Macbook Pro, but I’m actually waiting until retina displays become the default in a year or so (and they will, if you look at Apple’s typical technology adoption curve). Apple even went in sort of the wrong direction when they rolled out the retina iPad – it was a bit thicker and heavier than its predecessor, and the battery took longer to charge. This is not to say that iPad 3 was a flop, just that Apple has typically focused on size and weight above any performance specs. The iPad 2 has continued to sell briskly despite being almost two years old, and I think that part of the reason is that people don’t entirely get the retina display thing. The iPad mini corrects the big iPad’s deficiencies by offering an alternative scenario, one where size and weight are king.

The iPad mini’s size matters

Here’s where the iPad mini wins over iPad 4. The iPad mini is small and light – actually shockingly so. It’s a lot smaller – the roughly two-inch difference on the diagonal translates into 50% less screen volume (and the area surrounding the screen is smaller as well. But the most amazing part is the weight – while the iPad was always uncomfortable to hold for any length of time, the mini can be held effortlessly with just one hand (and, if you look carefully, every press photo of the iPad mini includes a hand grasping it). I could actually use it for reading a book, much as I currently use the Kindle. I pulled out my new Kindle Paperwhite and compared it to the iPad – the Kindle has a significantly smaller footprint, but the iPad is noticeably thinner (and still fits comfortably in one hand. The Kindle weighs a bit less, but it’s actually less significant than you would expect.

Pretty much every reviewer lauds the mini for its size and weight – I think that’s the real disruption here. Much as the tablet is disruptive to the laptop, the 8-inch tablet is disruptive to the 10-inch tablet. My short-lived Nexus 7 (I sold it after a month) was a bit too small for comfortable reading, but 7.9 inches seems like an appropriate tradeoff. With the iPad mini, you can do everything you can on the iPad, pretty much without compromises. Text is still readable at that size, and the touchscreen isn’t any more difficult to use. I found the Nexus 7 to be slightly uncomfortable when compared to both a smartphone and a tablet – Google uses a slightly awkward version of the phone UI with the Nexus 7. Part of this may have to do with the aspect ratio – the Nexus 7′s screen always seemed a bit too narrow, while the iPad’s 4:3 ratio is just right (even though it has to letterbox movies).

Putting lipstick on a Bulldog

The mini is also arguably prettier than the full-sized iPad, which hasn’t changed much in terms of looks since the second model. The mini looks (and feels) a lot like a blown up iPhone 5, which is actually a good thing. It’s likely that some of the interest is due to the iPad mini looking so different from the iPad – non-nerds definitely don’t care about what’s inside of the box (so long as the performance is reasonable).

So the iPad mini is better than the iPad 4 in all of the ways that matter (size, weight, and cost), and only lags in the ways that don’t (namely performance and screen resolution). Which gives it all the makings of a disruptive technology. I suspect that it will become Apple’s best-selling product, and the big iPad will become akin to the 15-inch Macbook Pro, which is vastly outsold by its 13-inch little brother. But that’s ok, because Apple is the most profitable company in the world, and they can afford to build two lines of products, one for technology nerds and the other for the mainstream.