Mild-Mannered Canadian Fury

Doug Stephen is Politely Peeved

Itty Bitty iPad Fever, Round 2

Thu, 05 Apr 2012 «permalink»

Rumors continue to abound of a smaller form factor iPad/larger form factor iPhone/iPod. And I’m not so sure where I stand on them anymore.

To start off, a bit of me, back on the ol’ Tumblr at the beginning of March:

There is a market for devices in this form factor, but they aren’t phones or “proper” iPad caliber tablets; they’re media devices. Specifically, the most successful devices to ever enter in to this role have been eBook readers, and most specifically the Kindle. Devices of this nature make sense at this size because they spend most of their time being used passively instead of actively. Another way of putting it is that they are meant for consumption.


But tasks that don’t require a lot of interaction, like reading, viewing movies, listening to music… the superiority of a device in working with these jobs scales up with screen size no matter the dimensions. Apple has already begun to kick off their disruption of the textbook industry and they have a strong content delivery mechanism in place their subscription service backend, iCloud, iBooks, and Newsstand Kit API’s. If there is a possibility of Apple releasing a 7” device, then I think we’d be looking at a piece of hardware whose intention is to compete not in the tablet space, but rather directly against the Kindle Fire and other competing devices of the same ilk.

It’s important to note that I felt, and still feel, that if a device like this is released then it won’t be called an iPad or an iPod or an iPhone. It will be its own new product line.

However, at the point I left off in my argument above, I went on to make the claim that a device of this nature would most likely fall in line with what is now being discussed as a 7.85” iPad that runs at the original iPad resolution of 1024x768. The extension of this is that it may not behoove Apple to run full-bore iOS with an App Store on such a device; this device would be dedicated solely to media consumption with no integration with the complete App ecosystem, and have a preset collection of apps installed for eReading and media; iBooks, Newsstand, iTunes, and maybe some partner apps like Netflix or Amazon1. I now see that this may not be the case.

There are two ways of looking at this, one of which I outlined in my original post, and the other of which has come to me in retrospect.

The first way of looking at this is that if the media delivery platform is strong enough and well-populated, then an iOS device can be successful without the App Store ecosystem. There is an example of this in the wild already, and that is the Apple TV. The argument remains to be seen if the iBooks library is strong enough to build an entire product around the way Apple has built an entire product around iTunes.

On the flip side of that, releasing a device built around the iBooks platform could also be an indication of Apple’s confidence in the growth potential of iBooks. Additionally, if a device like this competes at the Kindle Fire pricepoint (~$250USD) then this could be the next step in Apple’s domination of the textbook market since it would be even cheaper than the lingering iPad 2; the iPad 2 won’t be on sale forever, whereas a new product line dedicated to iBooks is one that can be refreshed and maintained while maintaining a desirable price point for the education market instead of passing down last year’s hardware every year.

The second way of looking at this is that no matter what Apple’s confidence in iBooks actually is, you won’t be able to build a successful iOS device around it. And that means to make the device desirable, you need the App Store. That’s where tooling up a tiny iPad gets weird. But then I saw this article by Odi Kosmatos after it got linked by Jim Dalrymple over at The Loop. And boy, does Kosmatos bring up some interesting points. The idea that running a smaller device that runs at a scale factor of 2-to-the-something relative to the iPhone/iPod instead of the iPad, and then uses the old Retina graphics from that platform is interesting. The example he gives is a 7” device instead of 7.85” to match the aspect ratio of the phones. For context, it would look something like this (click through for high res):

7 inch iPhone

A device like this would just use scaled versions of the phone UI controls, but since both screens would run at the same pixel density the scaled-up graphical assets would become physically larger instead of pixel-y; allow me to illustrate. Here are two fake app icons, that come bundled with MacRabbit’s new Layer Cake Slicy app as demos.

This is the non-Retina iPhone app icon:


This is the Retina iPhone app icon, rendered at double the pixel density:

Double Density

And here is the Retina iPhone app icon, rendered at the same pixel density as the non-retina version (same pixel density but pixel-doubled):

Regular Density

This hypothetical device would just show the big version of the Retina asset instead of upscaling and uglifying like what happens when you scale non-Retina apps. What this does is makes keeping the App Store in the equation easy. It’s effectively the same form-factor of the Kindle Fire. It’s an interesting (I don’t think perfect, but I’ll concede interesting) solution to the problem of getting iOS on to an intermediate form-factor without compromising on the ability to use the device.

All that being said, we can’t lose sight of the fact that at this point, everything is conjecture. We know that Apple is playing around with a device like this in the lab. And we know that, to some degree, there are people at Apple who feel that this form factor isn’t adequate for a tablet. Maybe Apple feels like they’ve done enough to capture this media-consumption market with the multi-purpose iPad, and they’ll simply continue to distribute the prior year’s model and never expand their prices downward. I remain convinced that if Apple does release a product in this form factor that they will do it in a way that highlights their content platforms and not the app store, but I’m no longer as convinced that they will forego this aspect completely. Only time will tell.

  1. Amazon Kindle integration would be unlikely. Even though Amazon has a Kindle app for iOS, they seem hesitant to enter in to a full-on content partnership with Apple. A good support for this is the complete lack of Amazon Instant Streaming on the Apple TV.