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With iPad Mini, Apple Switches From Offense To Defense

Apple is growing. And the iPad mini is a sign of growth’s costs.

On Tuesday, alongside a new Retina MacBook, faster Mac Mini, and super thin iMac, Apple announced the iPad Mini. It’s a 7.9-inch, .68lb version of Apple’s landmark tablet—the product that will go down in history for bucking conventions and making the tablet form factor every bit as popular as Star Trek imagined. And yet the iPad Mini is a harbinger of a different Apple—one that doesn’t just take big, risky swings to change the world but snags low-hanging fruit to appease board members, too.

The iPad Mini is no iPad—not strategically. In a world of diminutive smartphones and Kindles, the original iPad was stubbornly large. It wasn’t quite the size of a magazine, and it wasn’t quite the size of a book. It was big enough for movies, probably, but it wasn’t a widescreen. The only real justification to the iPad’s size and shape was that, somewhere in the heart of Cupertino, a team of designers overseen by Jobs and Ive, decided that a 9.7-inch, 4:3 screen was perfect for held media. It’s a point that Jobs was extremely outspoken about in a call to investors in 2010.

[W]e think the ten-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps . . . the current crop of seven-inch tablets are going to be DOA—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 who jumped on the seven-inch bandwagon with an orphaned product. Sounds like lots of fun ahead.

So does the iPad Mini make Apple a hypocrite? Nah. It just makes them wrong. The iPad Mini is not a product driven by usability—even though Phil Schiller points out that it can "be held in one hand"—but one driven by market pressure. With Kindles, Nooks, and every Android tablet under the sun, Apple faces an incredible amount of competition from a quickly commoditized tablet market. This competition sits in a sweet spot that’s roughly half the price of a $500 iPad, which surely convinces some bootstrapping households that "we could get two Kindles for the price of one iPad!"

So the iPad Mini is a $329 device. Its size—its inevitable fanboy arguments for usability or portability—are largely irrelevant. It’s a cheaper iPad, and so more people will buy it. That’s why it exists. Apple basically said so in 2010.

For Apple, this is a notable shift in strategy. Since the famous return of Jobs, Apple had been a premium alternative brand, selling a few forward-thinking products that sat at the top of the market in innovation, design, and build quality, kindly tossing down ropes for lost industry peers to climb up. Apple consumerized the smartphone with the iPhone. They solidified the tablet industry with the iPad (and personally sold 100 million of 'em to boot). Even the Macbook Air—the old laptop form factor—spawned a line of competitive PC ultrabooks subsidized by Intel. These days, it’s hard to find a laptop that isn’t under one inch thick.

Now, Apple is backtracking. The iPad Mini isn’t even an attempt at an iconic product. And it’s not a smaller-equates-premium 12-inch Powerbook (it doesn’t even have a Retina display). It’s a direct, ground-level battle for turf in a tablet market that veered a bit from Apple’s original path (Apple did a side-by-side on stage of the Mini next to the Nexus!). It’s the sort of strategy you see from the Samsungs and the Sonys of the world (or at least, you would, before everyone started emulating Apple’s simpler model), which release 20 SKUs for what’s essentially the same camcorder or Blu-ray player, hitting every $20 price point from $400 to $800 in order to milk dollars from every consumer possible.

Is this the end of Apple’s run? Of course not. The iPad Mini will sell wonderfully, just like the iPod Mini did. The difference here, of course, is that the iPod Mini was truly pocketable. It was also, quite simply, an idyllic form, rather than a laptop hard drive in a case. For the end user, it was actually a lot more than a slightly smaller, cheaper iPod.

It’s also a bit ironic that while Apple roughs it to appeal to budget-conscious consumers, their once-greatest rival, Microsoft, positions its Surface tablet as a premium product. The Surface starts at $500, but it’s really $600 with a keyboard. A future version, fitted with a full-blown laptop processor, will probably even reach $1,000. And it’s sold exclusively at Microsoft stores.

While Apple is diversifying their iPad line and going mainstream, Microsoft is honing their vision and lobbying for tablets as premium devices. To quote Jobs himself, "Sounds like lots of fun ahead."

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