Apple watchers and the infamous “anonymous people familiar with the situation” have Apple pegged as releasing a new, smaller version of the iPad as early as this month, dubbed the “iPad Mini” by the cognoscenti. Rumors also hint that the next generation of the iPhone seems to be a near certainty, with the most extreme rumors pointing to a refresh of Apple’s entire mobile lineup to accommodate a new specification for their interface cable.

For once, Apple seems to be playing the role of industry follower, presumably releasing a smaller and less expensive tablet to compete with Android-based units like Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus 7. What does the potential iPad Mini mean for enterprise technology leaders?

A half-dozen Apples

An immediate concern with Apple’s expanding mobile ecosystem is what Android detractors have termed fragmentation, whereby any device could adopt Google’s Android, providing all manner of non-standard screen sizes and hardware specifications for application developers to contend with. Until fairly recently, Apple stayed above the fragmentation fray, offering a 9.7-inch screen on its tablet and 3.5-inch screen on its phones. With the arrival of the iPhone 4, the 3.5-inch screen accommodated twice as many pixels, and the “new iPad” performed a similar feat, essentially tasking developers with accommodating four different screen resolutions for Apple devices. A 5- or 7-inch tablet would add another resolution to that mix, and the next iPhone is rumored to sport a larger screen as well, adding a half-dozen resolutions to Apple’s stable.

The varying resolutions are important to enterprise IT, since they present additional challenges on designing applications that work on the devices. Even if your mobile strategy consists largely of web-based, cross-device applications, it’s still challenging to create an application that’s fluid and easy to use on several very different screen sizes.

The obvious analogy is the desktop development, where most applications can successfully contend with screens that might range from a dozen inches to widescreen monsters, but this is a precedent that was established years ago. Whereas Apple seemed immune to “device sprawl,” developers must now plan for Apple’s half-dozen.

There’s gold in them hills

The big innovation from a smaller Apple tablet will not be the technology it sports, but an anticipated lower price. For companies where the $399 point of entry is a bit dear, a 25-50% price reduction might be the goose that gets tablets in play. Couple this with Apple’s recent patent victory over Android-based Samsung, and a price drop could grease the skids for an Apple intro.

Similarly, many organizations are still using older mobile phones, and a low-price Apple device might allow for a test deployment of both tablets and Apple devices in an enterprise environment before committing to more expensive “iPad Maxis” or iPhones.

Apple behind the times?

From an industry perspective, the most interesting development with the iPhone Mini is that it appears to be one of the first major reactionary maneuvers on the part of Apple since it redefined tablet computing with the launch of the iPad. This can be interpreted in two broad ways: either Apple has felt competitive pressure from smaller and cheaper Android tablets, or Apple has become a bit less dogmatic and is willing to experiment with different form factors and device features. I hope we’re seeing a bit of the latter. While there’s an obvious delicate balance between providing a compelling product portfolio and creating a confusing and overwrought product line, there are still opportunities in the tablet form factor that industry leader Apple could reinvigorate.

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