Does Steve Protest Too Much?

In the Apple earnings call yesterday, CEO Steve Jobs spent some time explaining why a 7″ iPad doesn’t make sense. His main argument was that, with the smaller screen, the resolution would be different and therefore would require that developers support yet another screen configuration. I can see the merit of this argument, if you also buy the argument that the screen resolution needs to be different. However, Apple could stick with the 1024×768 dimensions, just with smaller pixels. From a usability point of view, I would expect most apps to continue to work just fine. Some would definitely suffer from the smaller size, since the targets would have shrunk about 40%. But people do manage to type on their iPhones, whose keyboard is about half the size of the iPad keyboard.

Technical details aside, what makes me suspicious about there actually being a smaller iPad in the works is the fact that Steve appeared personally on the call, and spent a significant amount of time dismissing the idea. Keep in mind that Steve does have a habit of doing this, only to announce the very thing he said they wouldn’t do, explaining how Apple did a better job. This happened with the iPhone, AppleTV and the iPad. Each time Steve said “we won’t do it”, he had many cogent and rational reasons for why Apple shouldn’t. With the iPhone, it had to do with things like dealing with carriers and the form-factor. With the iPad, it was again partly form-factor and partly functionality, since he didn’t see the value of a notebook computer you could write on. There was also the history of similar devices, and how they hadn’t captured massive numbers of buyers.

When taken in context, the original arguments made sense, and appealed to the generally conservative nature of most analysts and investors. Where Apple has succeeded is in taking an idea that, in conventional terms, doesn’t make sense as a product, and turning that into something that is familiar but different. The iPhone was similar enough, in terms of features and functions, to existing smartphones that it wasn’t “too radical”, but it was different enough that it was “completely new” in the minds of some people. The first iteration of the AppleTV mimicked other, similar devices, and in some ways was “too similar”, which may have contributed in part to it’s lack of success. The follow-on is different enough in terms of features and form-factor that it stands a better chance of success. The iPad was another one that was familiar (it ran most iPhone/iPod Touch apps, it sort-of acted like a big iPod Touch), but was still different enough that people have embraced it as a new device.

So how could Apple make a 7″ tablet work? One approach, already discussed above, is to simply take the iPad, keep the aspect ratio and the pixel dimensions, and just make smaller pixels. The retina display technology in the latest iPhone and iPod Touch would be able to handle this quite easily. It does run the risk of some apps being harder to use, since the targets where the user touches are smaller. But it might be enough for most apps. A challenge in this approach may be about the hardware. While there is a surprising amount of space inside the iPad (see the iFixit teardown for images), getting it into a device that is 40% or so smaller might be a bit of challenge. I could see the device having to give up some battery if the components wouldn’t fit. How the new packaging would affect cooling of the components would be a question.

An alternative would be to “scale up” the iPod Touch, offering the most recent version’s aspect ratio and pixel dimensions, just with bigger pixels. The downside here is that apps that aren’t updated to take advantage of the new, higher resolution screens in the iPod Touch and iPhone will look a bit jagged and rough (to see what it could look like, run an iPhone/iPod Touch app on an iPad and scale it up with the 2x button). It would make these apps easier to use for some people, since the touch targets would be bigger, but the image quality will be noticeably worse in some apps. Hardware-wise, though, scaling up the iPhone or iPod touch would be a snap, and would gain the device a lot more battery power.

The last approach would be a new device with a new resolution and possibly a new screen ratio. Hardware-wise, I would expect it to be closer to the iPad in terms of processor, storage and supported features. Having spent some time now building universal apps for iPad and iPhone, adding a 3rd device wouldn’t be a huge deal. If Apple were to maintain the 4:3 ratio of the current iPad, re-arranging an existing iPad app to fit the smaller screen with fewer pixels would probably be less onerous on most developers.

I still believe that an 7″ iPad (or whatever it is called) makes sense, for the same reasons I outlined in my previous post. While I can certainly appreciate the reservations Steve expressed during the call, I have to take them in the context of his comments about competing tablets and smartphones, particularly his points on “fragmentation”. It wouldn’t do to contradict himself on the call by saying that fragmentation is bad for his competitors, but okay for him. A smaller iPad (or bigger iPod Touch) does fragment the iOS product line some, and depending on how it is done, it adds another platform for developers to specifically target and need to test against. But as much as this could be viewed as fragmentation, what I still think is that it also plugs a bit of a hole in the iOS family of products, both from a size/form-factor point of view, as well as for price.