Has Apple redefined the tablet as an 8-inch device?

Summary:I bought myself an iPad mini for Christmas and was smitten. Eight inches seems like the right size for a tablet, but has Apple caused trouble for Microsoft with the Mini?

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An iPad Mini next to a Nexus 7. You may think that I used my Surface as a stand for the tablets when taking this photo. I couldn't possibly comment. (Credit: Matt Baxter-Reynolds/ZDNet)

Just before Christmas last year, I was speaking to a friend of mine who mentioned that their iPad Mini was like their "backup brain." For some reason, this statement was enough to make me go out and buy one.

I had planned to keep both the iPad Mini and my normal, full-sized iPad . In fact, I sold my full-sized iPad within a day of taking delivery of the Mini. The Mini just seemed to fit what I needed it for perfectly, whereas the full-sized iPad in comparison immediately felt faintly ridiculous.

Sense

We know that Steve Jobs was not a fan of the smaller tablet, but it appears that his judgement was off in this regard. In domestic settings, the Mini seems to work better. And hopefully, I'll come up with a good definition of what I mean by "better" as we go.

It's telling that on the one hand, a lot of products that seem to sell well in competition with the iPad are already on a "mini" scale. Nexus 7 is a popular Android tablet with a clue-is-in-the-name screen size of 7 inches that seems to sell OK. The Kindle Fire tablets are each about that size and seem to sell well too. Samsung has also pre-announced an 8-inch Galaxy Note for Mobile World Congress next month.

On the other hand, it's also telling that smartphones not made by Apple tend to be getting bigger. The Lumia 920 is a huge smartphone with a 4.5-inch screen. The Galaxy S III has a 4.8-inch screen. And then you have things like the Galaxy Note II with a 5.6-inch screen.

(For what it's worth, I use an iPhone 4S with its teeny 3.5-inch screen. But I'm starting to feel like a Old World BlackBerry user with a tiny screen, whilst the world moves onto "phablets.")

Whatever is happening out there, there seems to be drift in screen sizes towards devices with screens that are--for the sake of argument--around 6-inches for a smartphone and around 8-inches for a tablet.

So why should the market like small tablets? Any why would the market like large smartphones? Something seems to be exerting a force on the tablet market that's leading to a smaller screen. Similarly, something seems to be exerting a force on the smartphone market to make larger screens.

I think what's happening here is the same force acting in two different ways.

On the smartphone side, people are caring less about making phone calls and more about being able to access their digital world, regardless of where they are and what primary activity they're engaged in. Smartphones and tablets both do that last bit well, but a larger screen is needed to gain higher utility. This is "relationship-centric" computing , the hallmark of what makes a post-PC device.

The problem with smartphones is that people want it with them all of the time, but only half of these people (typically women) use purses. ("Handbags," if you prefer the British vernacular.) If you're an individual who happens to not routinely use a purse, the most practical way to tote something around is in your pocket. Hence smartphones want to be bigger to gain utility, but sizes are capped by the typical carrying capacity of a man's pocket.

I'm not entirely convinced, however, that in this instance, people want to have two devices because both smartphones and tablets do the same basic job of relationship-centric computing. If I happened to routinely carry a purse, an optimum arrangement for me would be to carry around a tablet and have a feature phone for making emergency phone calls. Plus, if I'm carrying around a tablet in a purse, I'd rather it was a small 8-inch device than a larger 10-inch device, especially if there was no standout reason why the extra screen size was an absolute requirement. If everyone in the world carried a purse every time they left the house, perhaps we'd be looking at smartphones and tablets both ending up around the 8-inch size.

Mind you, none of this explains why a smaller tablet makes sense at home and if you have no intention of taking it out of the house. That seems counterintuitive as the assumption would be that at home, you want a big tablet as big screens offer greater utility. You would think watching movies and TV programs on it would be frustrating because of the small screen size. (It's seems not to be--in fact, when you're in the moment, I'd challenge anyone to notice.) You'd think website text would be too small to read comfortably. (This also turns out not to be a problem.) It's not like the extra volume the a large tablet has is getting in the way at home most of the time.

I do wonder whether the apparent preference for smaller tablets is because a smaller tablet is more personal, and even less like "work" than a full-sized tablet. Historically, people have always looked at the full-sized iPad and wanted to do work on it. I'm not sure that happens so much with small tablets. It would certainly be a rare individual that looks at a Nexus 7 and has a burning desire to start writing a PowerPoint slide deck on it.

A corollary argument is that symbolically, we tend to look at the "keyboard" as social archetype that represents work. This I think is one of the main reasons why society has been more able to accept keyboard-less post-PC devices like the iPhone, Android phone, and tablets than previous devices that have keyboards, even though the same relationship-centric computing functions were technically available prior to the arrival of these devices. Generally, even people who are really into their work-life don't want it impinging on their personal life all of the time.

Unconsciously we partition devices as being about work or not about work, and the presence (or not) of a keyboard has a big impact on that unconscious decision making. There is a reason the iPad doesn't have a keyboard--it's not a device for doing work on. There's also a reason the iPad sells--spoiler: it's the same reason.

By extension, a small tablet might continue that imperative. An iPad Mini looks even less like a laptop than an iPad did, it looks more like a big smartphone in this context. Generally, smartphones are very non-threatening as most individuals are already presupposed to regard smartphones as things about play and not really about work.

Specifically then, smaller tablets could be keying into the relationship-centric, "playtime" desires that are divorced from considerations of "work", whereas a larger tablet is just tipping into a sometimes-work/sometimes-play mental space. This would explain why a smaller tablet is more pleasing, hence the pressure downwards towards the 8-inch screen.

Both of these points imply that really, we seem to want one device, which has a screen of about 8 inches, but logistically, we can't achieve that because of imperatives in how we run our lives--e.g., we need to make phone calls when the car breaks down, or a friend needs a kind ear and we're out walking the dog; plus half the world uses pockets to carry things rather than purses.

Impact

My musings aside, the iPad Mini might be causing trouble in the market through the vector of unexpected consequences.

If the iPad Mini is selling really well, it may have redefined the "natural" size of a domestic-use tablet as being a smaller device. Apple might have validated the previous decisions by Google to make the Nexus 7 small, and Amazon in making the Kindle Fire tablets small, even though I suspect those previous decisions had more to with the bill of materials than any sense as to the desires of the customer.

Microsoft may have a problem here. The smallest Windows 8 or Windows RT tablet that you can buy is "big tablet"-sized and no one is making a small Windows 8 tablet. The problem with Microsoft's positioning of Windows in a post-PC world is its (understandable) obsession with Office and with keyboards. This makes life really difficult for an OEM trying to make a small tablet, as you'd need to make a very small keyboard to go with it. You're then looking at something more like the now relatively-ancient Toshiba Libretto, which might be a tough sell as today, that looks an awful lot like a netbook.

Unless one of the OEMs does something amazingly bold, Windows tablets look like they're stuck in a 10-inch or greater world. That would mean that Microsoft has managed to accidentally entirely miss what seems like an obvious and logically-defensible market shift to smaller tablets in the domestic-use space. Fingers crossed for a "Surface Mini."

(This glosses over whether larger tablets make more sense when you are actually at work or buying tablets for commercial operations, but that's a topic for another day.)

Peculiarly, with all eyes on RIM this month--well, some eyes--well, my eyes--the PlayBook that once was looking too small as as 7-inch device now finds itself plopped directly into what could be the most lucrative part of the domestic tablet market. If BlackBerry 10 makes any sense to that same market and sells, they might end up with a decent enough halo effect. (Assuming the price of the PlayBook is sustainable where it is, but that is a topic for another day.)

And what a strange place that would be. A tablet that Jobs never thought his company would make competing with a tablet that's been a commercial disaster for most of its life--and with Apple's long-time rival with no comparable product in the market.

Strange times.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Tablets, iPad, Microsoft Surface

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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