Mass production of Apple's fabled iPad mini has allegedly begun, and while there hasn't been a single official word uttered about this by anyone at Cupertino, this hasn't stopped the endless speculation. Well, time for some more speculation and prognosticating.
Here are three things Apple will need to get right if this new class of device is to succeed.
Price is going to be critical, and Apple hasn't left much room for any iPad mini it its lineup. It has to fit into a catalog that consists of the iPad 3 that starts at $499, the iPad 2 that retails for $399, and the iPod touch -- Apple's iPhone without the phone -- that also starts at $299.
Apple's decision to price the iPod touch starting at $299 doesn't leave much room for the iPad mini. Would the market support a price of $350 when a full-sized iPad 2 costs $399, and the latest model only another $100? Since Apple firmly believes that its loyal customers will pay $40 for a cable or $9 for a wrist strap, then maybe people will, without question, pay whatever it says on the price tag for an iPad mini.
But still, if the best Apple can offer the iPod touch -- with its 4-inch screen, 5-megapixel camera, and 32GB of storage -- is $299, then it's hard to see the iPad mini, with its 7.x-inch screen (where the x is an unknown), coming in cheaper.
I firmly believe that if the iPad mini is to be a success -- assuming that we ever see such a device -- then there has to be more to it than being just a smaller iPad. If the difference is no more than having to choose between an iPad with a 9.7-inch screen, and one with a 7.x-inch screen, then I can see price being the deciding factor.
To many people, the choice of a tablet with a screen "about 9 inches across" and another with a screen "about 7 inches across" is going to come down to price. This is because those two inches don't seem important. I know that Apple sell MacBook Pro and MacBook Air systems in 2-inch increments, but differentiation in CPUs, RAM, GPUs, and storage mean it's not a straight decision between one screen size and another.
The iPad mini needs to be more than just a mini iPad.
While it seems that even former Apple CEO Steve Jobs was "receptive" to the idea of a 7-inch iPad, it's going to take effort to get the user interface right. What works on the iPhone with its 4-inch screen, or the iPad with the 9.7-inch screen, won't necessarily work for a device with a 7.x-inch screen.
Back in December of 2011, a Nielsen Normal Group report claimed that Amazon's Kindle Fire Android tablet "offers a disappointingly poor user experience". The problem came down to the screen, and how it awkwardly fell into the gap between a smartphone and a tablet.
The Nielsen Normal Group's conclusions were harsh:
For 7-inch tablets to succeed, service and content providers must design specifically for these devices. Repurposed designs from print, mobile phones, 10-inch tablets, or desktop PCs will fail, because they offer a terrible user experience. A 7-inch tablet is a sufficiently different form factor that it must be treated as a new platform. Furthermore, these mid-sized tablets are so weak that suboptimal designs — that is, repurposed content — won't work. Optimize for 7-inch or die.
Because the iPad currently commands 70 percent of the tablet market, we've not seen a lot of content optimized for 7-inch tablets.
The bottom line
When Apple unveiled the iPad two and a half years ago, it was a very different world. Tablets weren't new, but the idea that a tablet could go mainstream was. Microsoft had tried, and failed monumentally, for over a decade, and tablets seemed destined to be niche products.
Apple changed this.
Now the market is different. Apple may have grabbed 70 percent of the market, but it's now a busy and contently evolving market. Players like Google and Amazon have marked their territory, while Microsoft is hoping that there's room for Windows 8-powered slates.
There's no doubt that Apple has the Midas touch, and anyone who bets against the Cupertino juggernaut is a foolish person, but the iPad mini could be under greater and more immediate pressure than the iPad was when it was born.
Image source: Nickolay Lamm/InventHelp.