Thoughts on iPad mini

Before Apple's announcement yesterday, I had worked myself into a kind of frenzy of "wouldn't it be AWESOME if you could get an iPad for £200?". That didn't happen and, on reflection, I feel a bit silly for ever thinking it might.

I wrote on Twitter this week that the question Apple would answer with this event was whether Apple thought people wanted a smaller iPad or whether Apple thought people wanted a cheaper iPad. The clear answer is that Apple thinks people want a smaller iPad. The iPad mini has clear echoes of the iPod mini: a device less powerful than the top of the line for not much less money. Recall that the iPod offered 10GB of storage for $299 and the iPod mini offered 4GB for $249, yet the mini went on to break completely new ground for the iPod line.

In truth, the iPad mini is much less of a compromise and much more of a saving than the iPod mini ever was.

On the device itself, a few points:

  • That it runs existing iPad software unmodified solves at a stroke the problem currently plaguing Android tablets: that there's precious little software specifically designed for that device.
  • Hands-on will be crucial but a 7.9" screen at a 4:3 aspect ratio is a significantly different experience from a 7" screen in a 16:10 aspect ratio. I will be very interested to see how the landscape keyboard feels.
  • The lack of a retina display is welcome in that the iPad mini won't suffer the long charging times and heavy battery required in the 4th-generation iPad. That said, I criticised the Nexus 7 as an e-Reader because of its lack of a retina-class screen and the iPad mini probably deserves similar criticism.
  • I'm glad they didn't enter with an 8GB device. Even though it may have enabled a lower entry-level price, I don't think 8GB is realistically useful - or even usable - for a modern iOS device.

I've said before and I still think I'm right on this: a sub-10" device makes a wonderful adjunct to a computer. A 10" device can replace it.

On the price, it's more than I had hoped for. In the UK, the Nexus 7 is selling for £159. Given the relative strength of the Apple and Google ecosystems, I've never thought that Apple needed to undercut or even match Google's price. I think the gap still feels a little large but you have to look at what people are actually buying and using and I'm not seeing Nexus 7s everywhere I look.

From the point of view of a school, I don't think the iPad mini will enable a lot of new 1:1 programs. The reason that we don't have more isn't purely money. After all, devices cheaper than the iPad have existed for years - they're called Netbooks - and we don't have hundreds of schools full of 1:1 Netbook programs. I think, for a full-time 1:1 deployment, you're still going to want to use a full-size iPad.

What the iPad mini will do is cut the cost of a class-set deployment. When you deploy in a class-set approach, the actual use of the device is typically more ad-hoc and not as detail- and creativity-oriented as a permanent 1:1 scenario. Perhaps the iPad mini will work better in that situation.

I don't really buy the argument that young children need a smaller device. That's intuitively appealing but I don't think it stands up. For one thing, the smaller the device is, the finer motor skills you need to manipulate it. Young children don't have such fine motor control. This is why you give a young child a fat pencil and an older child a thinner one. Secondly, our experience has been that younger children tend to lose small things. We see younger pupils losing their own iPod touch devices quite often in school but never their iPad. The most compelling reason to give a younger pupil a smaller iPad is cost and, at the price points Apple's offering, I don't see the savings over a three-year lease as compelling. The benefits to having all pupils on the one device are probably greater - especially for a school like mine with all grades K-12 in the one school.

As for the iPad 4, I'm not at all upset that Apple 'obsoleted' my 6-month-old iPad 3. You're asking me would I rather the pace of innovation slowed down just so I could feel like the king of the hill for a bit longer? That's crazy. If there's one thing you'll never hear me ask for, it would be that Apple slow down the rate at which iPads get better.

I'm a bit disappointed, though, that the time-frame for the release of iPads has now moved to JUST AFTER SCHOOL GOES BACK. When the release was in March and we deployed in August, we at least got 6 months of being absolutely current. When the release is in October, unless there's another rev in March, we will be deploying a device that's already 10 months old. When I don't have a product roadmap, I'm not sure how I'm going to feel about signing a 3-year lease for a device that's already nearly a year old. We'll see what happens in March.

Back to the iPad mini, though. Apple hasn't killed off the competition at a stroke. However, they are definitely in for a tough time. We know that Amazon are selling the Kindle Fire essentially at cost and that Google are subsidising the Nexus 7 to a substantial degree. My guess is that Apple's price point is as low as you can go on this kind of device and still make a healthy profit. It's not that nobody can be cheaper; it's that nobody can be cheaper and make a profit. That's a much harder position to sustain.

The question of "what do you want to do with it?" has never been more important. We used to ask that question and direct people to a desktop or laptop mostly depending on whether they mentioned video editing or not. Today it's a much more nuanced conversation and, probably, the answer is that you'll have a range of low-cost devices to satisfy various needs.

I'll buy an iPad mini because I'm weird like that and it's my job to know about these things. I doubt that there will be many people buying both an iPad and an iPad mini, and that's the way it should be. It's far too early in this game to start trying to sell again to the already-converted.