Why you won’t see smaller iPads next year – though you will see revised iPads

The Digitimes looks at the future of the iPad, and it’s bigger screens!

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Why you won’t see smaller iPads next year – though you will see revised iPads” was written by Charles Arthur, for theguardian.com on Friday 17th September 2010 15.57 UTC

The splendid supply chain rumour mill Digitimes is reporting that “Component suppliers including touch panel and reinforced glass suppliers for Apple’s iPad are completing validation with Apple for the second-generation 9.7-inch iPad, according to Taiwan-based component suppliers. Apple is expected to launch the second-generation iPad in the first-quarter of 2011, the suppliers noted.”

This report is pretty unequivocal – it gives you the size of the screen and it gives you a timescale (the latter matching Apple’s usual timescale for launching revisions of its computer-ish products, ie announce them in January (like it did with the iPad – remember? – and iPods).

Which hasn’t stopped some slightly excitable blogs declaring that the launch of “iPad 2” is “imminent” (here’s the search; I did try it on Bing but couldn’t get the same relevant set of results).

Some are suggesting that Apple is going to try to knock out the smaller 7″ tablets that have begun appearing (such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab – read Tim Bray of Google’s very fine review) by offering its own 7″ “mini-iPad”.

A moment’s thought will tell you that this is wrong. I’m certain that Apple is not going to announce a 7″ iPad early next year.

Here’s why.

The tablet market is exploding; it’s chewing into netbook sales and even, if you believe the numbers, notebook sales (at least in the US). There are all sorts of competing OSs (Techcrunch counts six OSs – Apple’s iOS, Android, Chrome, Windows, WebOS, and the mysterious “BlackPad” for BlackBerry-ish devices.) Update: Make that 7 – as MagicianUK points out in the comments, there’s going to be a MeeGo tablet launched (Germany only to begin with) next week. Oh my.

There are also competing sizes – with Samsung having gained a lot of attention for the Galaxy Tab, which is a 7″ tablet. Other companies seem tempted to follow. Dell’s got the 5″ Streak, Toshiba has a 10″ tablet, but 7″ is what quite a few companies are aiming at (including Viewsonic).

Now ask yourself: if you were in marketing in Apple, would you launch a product which has a different screen size from the one you’ve spent millions of dollars/pounds marketing, yet which has the same screen size as (some of) your competitors? Wouldn’t doing that make it look like you think your rivals had the right idea about screen size, and that you screwed it up the first time? (Even if you did. But this is marketing, remember, where no decision is ever wrong.)

Or would you stick with the same screen size that you’ve already established, and perhaps increase the pixel density, and so make it something more like the iPhone 4’s “Retinal Display”? That way the old and new models are the same size, so that retailers don’t have to remake their in-store displays (much) and can also sell any remaining old stock they have without people asking too many difficult questions.

Well? No-brainer. You stick with the existing size.

Yes, you can point to the iPod mini, which was released in January 2004: before that, all iPods had been the same size (but with various feature tweaks). It was the iPod mini, a smaller version of the original iPod, which made the category take off: its sales were truly enormous, and that’s what cemented Apple’s leadership of the MP3 player market.

But we’re not yet at the same point in the product cycle of the iPad, or tablets, as the iPod mini was in the iPod cycle. Tablets are a category that has barely begun to make an impact on consumer consciousness; it’s still unusual to see someone carrying one.

By contrast in January 2004, Apple had been running the iTunes Music Store for almost 9 months; by the summer of 2004 it had sold 100m songs, which implies that it was already well along the way before the iPod mini was launched.

So what should you expect?
– no revision of the iPad any time this year
– another version of the iPad to be announced some time in the first quarter of next year, with the same screen size, probably with more storage, and possibly with greater resolution

In the fullness of time – ie once a few of the would-be tablet makers have folded their tents and gone home, unable to make anything resembling a profit – it would make sense for Apple to try to corner the rest of the market by launching a smaller iPad, just as it did with the iPod. But even if that makes sense in the market, I don’t expect to see that until 2012 at the earliest. Remember, the iPod was launched in October 2001; as a product line it was more than two years old by the time the iPod mini came along. The iPad hasn’t even been in peoples’ hands for six months yet. Apple doesn’t move that quickly. But there are plenty of blogs – and even newspapers – which like to let expectation run ahead of reality. Cooler heads prevail in Cupertino, though.

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