Rumors of an impending Apple iPad mini continue to proliferate, with The New York Times being the latest to weigh in, and Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal already having had their say, so it's a good time to recount the late Steve Jobs's arguments as to why such a device will be doomed to failure.
Much has been made about Jobs' "sandpaper" comments – that users would have to sharpen their fingers to tap interface elements on a 7 inch screen – but he had much more to say about how driving down price points simply to enter lower-rent markets was a bad deal for developers.
But if the flood of rumors about a 7-inch iPad are true (well, actually a 7.85-inch Cupertinian fondleslab, but let's not quibble), an attempt to move down into the less-expensive Amazon Kindle Fire and Google Nexus 7 market is exactly what Cook & Co. are planning – and exactly what Steve Jobs said would be a bad idea.
Here's a transcript, word for word, of Jobs explaining the shortcomings of 7-inch tablets to reporters and analysts during a financial-results conference call on October 19, 2010. At the time, he was commenting on Android 2.2 (Froyo) tablets, and he didn't think much of them – and he didn't want you to, either:
One naturally thinks that a 7-inch screen would offer 70 per cent of the benefits of the 10-inch screen. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. The screen measurements are diagonal, so that a 7-inch screen is only 45 per cent as large as iPad's 10-inch screen. You heard me right. Just 45 per cent as large.
If you take an iPad and hold it upright in portrait view and draw an imaginary horizontal line halfway down the screen, the screens on a 7-inch tablet are a bit smaller than the bottom half of the iPad's display. The size isn't sufficient to create great tablet apps, in our opinion.
While one could increase the resolution of the display to make up for some of the difference, it is meaningless unless your tablet also includes sandpaper so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of their present size.
Apple has done extensive user testing on touch interfaces over many years, and we really understand this stuff. There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touchscreen before users cannot reliably tap, flick, or pinch them. This one of the key reasons, we think, the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.
Jobs didn't stop there. He also argued that tablet users were also smartphone users, and thus 7-inch tablets were of a size that made no sense – they were neither fish nor fowl.
Given that all tablet users will already have a smartphone in their pockets, giving up precious display area to fit a tablet in their pockets is clearly the wrong trade-off. The 7-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with the smartphone and too small to compete with an iPad.
These are among the reasons we think the current crop of 7-inch tablets are going to be DOA – dead on arrival. Their manufacturers will learn the painful lesson that their tablets are too small, and increase the size next year, thereby abandoning both customers and developers who jumped on the 7-inch bandwagon with an orphan product.
Sounds like lots of fun ahead.
Of course, the "current crop" of 7-inch tablets at that time were running a rather rudimentary, smartphone-centric Android operating system on relatively pokey processors. A direct comparison between those tablets and an iPad could the come down more solidly on the iPad's side than could a comparison between Apple's expensive fondleslab and, say, today's cheaper Google Nexus 7 running Android 4.1, aka Jelly Bean, on a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor.
But at the time, Jobs insisted that striving to hit a lower price point simply wasn't in Apple's DNA. The sales job that he was giving that day to the reporters and analysts – and, by extension, to customers and investors – was that Apple was all about quality and user experience, not price points.
Jobs also thought it critical to keep developers on his side – the belief that he reiterated many times during his career, and that even such competitors as Microsoft's Steve Ballmer has been known to express in interpretive dance. As Jobs told his audience in 2010:
Cook & Co. may want to take Apple into a lower-cost tablet market, but Steve Jobs – if, of course, he was telling the truth at the time – thought that developers wouldn't follow if Apple attempted to lead them into a lower-cost, and therefore lower-power and smaller-screen, market.
During a question-and-answer session after the prepared part of his talk, one financial analyst suggested to Jobs that Apple would need to create cheaper products if the mobile market demanded them. Jobs argued back:
And you're sitting around, saying, "Well, how can we make this cheaper? Well, we can put a smaller screen on it, and a slower processor, and less memory," and you assume that the software will somehow just come alive on this product that you're dreaming up. But it won't.
Because these app developers have taken advantage of the products that came before with faster processors, with larger screens, with more capabilities that they can take advantage of to make better apps for customers. It's a hard one, because it throws you right back in the beginning of that chicken-and-egg problem to change all the assumptions on those developers. Most of them will not follow you.
But if the iPad mini rumors are correct – and we're not saying they are, and we're not saying they're not – Apple will most certainly be betting that developers will follow. Whether they will or will not may depend on whether Apple further splits iOS from its current iPhone and iPad (HD) duality into a triumvirate with an added iOS iteration for the neither-fish-nor-fowl 7-incher sitting between the two.
Jobs didn't think causing such developer confusion and increased workload was a great idea. But despite his reputation as a visionary, he was far from infallible – he was around when the decision to create Ping was made, remember?
Although there is no way to prove that Jobs wasn't merely sandbagging his audience on October 19, 2011, if – when? – Apple does move into the lower-priced tablet marketplace, it will be CEO Tim Cook who gives the go-ahead.
What this Reg reporter would love to know is whether Steve Jobs will be looking down from his cloudy perch – or up from his toasty confines, depending upon your opinion – with a frown of disapproval or a crafty fooled-you-and-bought-some-time-for-Tim grin. ®