Let’s get one thing perfectly clear from the beginning—despite speculation and rumors to the contrary, Apple could not have released a smaller iPad this year. The iPad line is still too new for Apple to split it in half and keep profits high. The production of a smaller tablet would have required that Apple retool their entire supply chain and give up tremendous economies of scale, sacrificing high margins to produce a new product that would cannibalize sales of the ten inch iPad.
But next year is a different year. By then the iPad will have reached its fourth birthday and competition from mobile phone and laptop vendors will be at a fever pitch. Window 8 will be on store shelves and Android 5.0 Jelly Bean will have been made available to vendors. Amazon’s second or third Kindle Fire will be up for sale, likely alongside a larger sibling, and Samsung will have had a chance to refine their tablet offerings and create a truly compelling S Pen. Much of the field will, like it already does, rely on smaller form factor tablets to clearly differentiate themselves from the new iPad. The launch of an Apple branded Lilliputian tablet would squash the development of Android market share while heading off a resurgence of the Microsoft brand. Small tablets are the most successful iPad challengers, but a smaller Apple tablet could easily destroy its burgeoning rivals.
Nevertheless, competitor offerings alone are not enough to justify a bifurcation of the iPad form factor. Apple is not a company that releases products just to be in the same space as other manufacturers. Apple never released a netbook, they pulled out of printers when they were most profitable, and they never made a serious play for the enterprise. Apple’s astounding success has come from it’s uncanny ability to see opportunity in the failings of other technology companies and respond to them with original hardware coupled to wonderful software. The iPad was a response to Microsoft’s attempts to slam Windows into a new market, the iPod was a response to terrible music players, the iPhone was a reply to crappy smartphones, and the MacBook Air was a rebuttal of Atom powered netbooks. Apple only introduces a new gizmo when it is absolutely certain it can innovate successfully while growing its share of the industry’s profits. Apple has already answered the call for a computer platform that moves beyond the PC; simply making it smaller would seem to do little to address an unmet market need.
But Apple has already told Wall Street what need it wants to meet. The education business is based on decaying models ripe for real disruption, and Apple wants to be the agent of change. In January, Apple held a large press conference for what seemed to be a relatively minor announcement—an iTunes category for textbooks, a WYSIWYG e-book creator, and a new version of iBooks. The products unveiled were not especially important, but Apple’s articulation of its vision for the future was. Tim Cook wants Apple to be the dominant player in classroom technology. The iPad, Apple’s post-PC success darling, was the star of the show. Students were shown flipping through pages of text, looking at diagrams, and playing videos without ever having to turn on a Mac or open a book. What was a little strange, though, was the age of the students Apple used to showcase its products. Apple chose not focus on colleges, or even high schools, where the high price of textbooks makes iBooks an easy sell and an obvious fit. Instead, Apple decided to pitch iBooks for grade schools and middle schools, and did its best to show how iPads for all could change the face of the primary schoolhouse.
The problem Apple failed to acknowledge at the event was not one of software, but of hardware. Children love using iPads, but its size gets in the way. When adults and teenagers hold an iPad, or any other ten inch tablet, there’s an easy intimacy that defines the relationship. The iPad strikes a wonderful balance between a larger screen size, better for productivity, and a smaller size that’s easier to handle and carry around. When you give a smaller child an iPad that careful balance is immediately disrupted. An awkwardness is present that is never seen when adults play with a tablet. Children’s iPads are left propped up or prone, they are almost never held in the hands for extended periods of time. The iPad’s 9.7 inches, so perfect for adults, are just too much for kids. If Apple is as serious about selling iPads to schools as they say they are they will need to introduce a miniature tablet, one small enough to not intimidate younger learners or interfere with their digital education. With the iPad 2 and iBooks they already have the price point and the software, now all they need is the form factor.