Will We See A Smaller iPad?

Among the various rumours about the iPad 3 has been one about a smaller, 7″ iPad of some kind. The official line from Apple has been “no way”. The reason given is that it is too small to be as useful as the 10″, but too big when compared to the iPhone. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve heard denial from Apple, only to see something eerily similar to what they said wouldn’t come. Apple denied, quite strongly, that they were going to get into the mobile phone market (and soon after we got the iPhone). Apple denied, again strongly, that they were going into the TV set-top box/home theatre market (and soon after we got the AppleTV). Apple denied that they were going to build some kind of tablet (or at least denied they would be build a Macintosh tablet). Once again, we got the iPad.

It is entirely possible we will see a smaller iPad in the rumoured March announcement. It could be a “just one more thing” moment for Tim Cook toward the end of the presentation. The only reason I would have for doubting the timing, but not necessarily the product, is that it does have a significant impact on iOS developers. It likely means a 3rd screen size to account for and deal with. It is possible that a 7″ iPad could have the same relative dimensions as the current iPad, again taking a 4:3 form. That could means that most iPad apps could “scale down” and still fit without breaking the relative position of controls and such. The only worry I would have is that the “targets” for our fingers would get proportionally smaller, and that could impair some apps that are available today. The alternative would be to have the 16:9-like dimensions of the iPhone, meaning that iPhone apps would “scale up”. That might be better from a usability point of view, but it also may impair their visual appeal (think about what iPhone apps look like when they are at 2x scale on the iPad).

Here’s another possibility: they announce a smaller iPad at WWDC this summer. I fully expect that this year’s WWDC keynote will be the iPhone 5 announcement. I expect what we’ll see is yet-more-powerful graphics and processing, more storage for our apps and content, LTE support, and the “new thing” for the phone will be Near-Field Communications (NFC) as part of the device. That means a bunch of sessions on how to build accessories for NFC, and how iOS developers can take advantage of it. That will probably include some new frameworks for authentication, identification and payment services. But a smaller iPad, with the new screensize, will likely mean changes to how GUI design and layout is done (and again, a real “just one more thing” moment for Tim Cook during the keynote).

Right now, we design for two screen sizes. I would expect that, with the introduction of a 3rd size, Apple changes the approach to design and layout, making it a bit more general purpose, and allowing for a revamp of the screen dimensions for the iPhone and the iPod Touch. I could see some interest in smaller iPhones and iPod Touches, meaning different screen dimensions again. It wouldn’t surprise me to see 2 sizes for the iPhone (small and regular) as well as 2 sizes for the iPad (small and regular). I can also see that, if the iPhone 5 goes with the full-width screen that some are predicting, that will have it’s own impact on screen dimensions and pixel counts.

Some will point out that Android developers have had to deal with a variety of screen dimensions for a number of years. I will point out that the way you actually have to implement on Android is clumsy and awkward, and can result in your app looking either pretty bad or truly weird on some machines. I do expect that Apple’s solution will have its own warts and bumps, but given Apple’s fanatical focus on the user interface, it will likely be more elegant and easier to work with, at least to a degree. At the very least, we aren’t left with hand-coded XML.

As for my personal opinion on a 7″ iPad: I think it would be a grand idea. I do like my current iPad, and I use it for a lot of things. But there are times where I would like something a bit smaller, mainly for reading books and when I’m out and about, want a tablet, but want something a bit smaller. In some ways, I prefer reading books on my 7″ Galaxy Tab, particularly when I take it to the gym. It is a nicer form-factor and little less cumbersome to drag around the gym. I will admit that I am a gadget junkie, so it doesn’t faze me to have multiple devices in different sizes.

So, a smaller iPad? I could see that coming, possibly this year.