Apple and the 7″ battleground

The iPad Mini is the final blessing of the 7″ tablet form factor that has been around for a few years in a number of different iterations. I’ve been on the Google Nexus 7 (manufactured by Asus) since July and have fallen so in love with it that I dumped my first iPad on my starving artist son for him to play with.

The designers at Lenovo used to call these palm-sized devices “tweeners” as they fit in between the form factor of the laptop and the smart phone. The “one-kilogram wasteland” was another term of derision, and I was interested in the concept of a device small enough to fit into a suit jacket pocket, but too big for a shirt. No one at Lenovo (circa 2009) gave much creedence to the design concept, even though some prototypes had tested well with focus groups but ultimately failed in actual usage scenarios.

While the late Steve Jobs derided the 7″ size tablet as too small (he famously remarked they should come with sandpaper so users could sharpen their finger tips to points), Amazon blazed a trail with the Kindle, Samsung made a noble effort with the Galaxy Note and Google pushed it further into the mainstream with the Nexus.

I don’t understand why Jobs dismissed a device that essentially mimics the tried and true dimensions of a book, arguably the best information delivery device in history.  A full browser can be supported easily (I run Chrome of course on the Nexus), and with the right design approach the user interface for most apps suits the screen just fine. I do slip the thing into my suit coat, prefer it now to a ThinkPad when it comes to bringing a device into a meeting, and tend to live with it during my off hours to do everything from read my email, stream baseball games, and watch Netflix. The first 10″ sized tablets were very nice — essentially laptops that lost their keyboards — but they weren’t as personal in terms of pocket-friendliness as the Nexus.

I think Apple priced itself way too high with this first mini. Anything above $300 is going to be hard to cost-justify versus the $250 ceiling on the current Google line up. Google and Amazon are determined to undersell the bill of materials in the Nexus and Fire and sell these things as loss leaders in hopes of putting shopping devices into the hands of the masses.  While people who have signed onto the Apple “holy trinity” of MacBook, iPhone and iPad are unlikely to shift off of the iOS/iTunes religion, I suspect a lot of holiday shoppers in the next month are going to be looking at devices $100 or more cheaper and decide that Android Jelly Bean and the Google Play or Amazon stores are good enough for them. Lord knows its been good enough for me and I was deeply embedded into the iTunes jail for over six years.

One thing that I think works against Apple in the tablet market — and very little does work against them, they’ve sold mountains of the devices, more than all PCs combined by their competition and apparently 91% of tablet web traffic is iPad created — is tablets are very minimalist platforms for design. There are very few opportunities for a designer to put a distinctive mark on what is essentially a rectangle of glass with a plastic or metal back.

I had this discussion years ago on Amtrak with Forrester’s tablet analyst, and told her I doubted my second tablet would be an Apple. She challenged me, dismissing my “fungible experience” argument, but here I am, three years after buying my iPad, happy to be without one and on a perfectly well engineered alternative.


Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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