Seven-inch iPad: How far is Cook's finger from the launch button?

Despite the late Steve Jobs' antipathy to smaller tablets, his successor at Apple might just take a different view.

A smaller screen and icons could make common tasks on a normal iPad considerably less comfortable. Photo: Apple

Apple is poised to release a seven-inch iPad - if you believe the speculation of the past month. Although rumour is part and parcel of an Apple watcher's brief, most of it is wide of the mark and based on wishful thinking. While talk of a smaller iPad is an interesting prospect, it's far from a sure thing.

First, a little perspective. Steve Jobs famously panned the seven-inch form factor for tablets, suggesting that users would have to sandpaper their fingers to get the most from their smaller displays. Typical Jobsian hyperbole, perhaps, but there is a grain of truth. Smaller screens and icons would make certain common tasks on a normal iPad considerably less comfortable - and the iPad is all about comfort and superior user experience.

However, since Jobs passed away the rumour mill has taken a new turn. Anything's possible, despite the views of its former CEO. Jobs' successor, Tim Cook, is doing things differently. He's cast as an operational genius but from his early tenure in the CEO role it's clear he's making Apple in his own image.

To many there is a wide and enticing gap between the 3.5-inch iPod touch and iPhone and the 9.7-inch iPad. Some manufacturers have already tried to fill it with mixed success. Samsung released a Galaxy Tab at the seven-inch form factor, while Amazon has the Kindle Fire in the US.

While Amazon is claiming strong sales - the company doesn't break down Kindle unit sales - seven-inch tablets from other manufacturers are hardly setting records. IDC suggests Amazon may have sold a healthy 4.7 million units in its Q4 2011. However, the Fire also sells at the low cost of $199 and is considered as a loss leader by Amazon to sell its store's wares, hardly Apple's successful high-margin model.

Meanwhile, the iPad is setting sales records and is defining, almost singlehandedly, a new era of computing. A smaller iPad might emulate the success and would reinforce the suspicion that there isn't so much a tablet market as an iPad market. That consumers are captivated by the Apple brand rather than the tablet computing platform.

As it stands there's no compelling, conventional reason why they shouldn't release the smaller form factor. Then again, Apple is not a conventional company.

One of the most-quoted Jobs product statements was that Apple was as proud of the products it chose not to release as much as the ones they had. Nobody doubts there are iPads and iPhones of all shapes and sizes on the six long steel tables the Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson described inside Jonathan Ive's design studio in Cupertino - but that doesn't mean that they'll ever see the light of day.

Pros and cons for widening iPad range

There are precedents for and against diversifying the iPad range. In favour of diversification is the iPod which has come in all shapes colours and sizes since its 2001 launch. Indeed, much of the iPod's success has come through miniaturisation in the forms of both the iPod mini and later the nano.

The argument against diversification is the iPhone. The same screen size, the same physical button arrangement, the same relative processor speed. Despite many reports prophesying otherwise, the iPhone has never offer a diminished or smaller version of itself.

Putting aside storage capacity, it has accommodated the existence of legacy versions of itself but the iPhone, from the perspective of the user, has not changed fundamentally. It offers a single, consistent user experience.

The iPod had a single core function, which was to play music. It could also be used to view other media and access basic functions such as games and calendars but it was a device mainly to play music, preferably bought from the iTunes Music Store. Adding additional secondary functions didn't compromise the overall user experience of the iPod as music player.

The iPhone does not have a single purpose, but a wide range of functions supported by a vast legion of developers. Even shorn of third-party apps, the iPhone has a broad range of use cases right out of the box.

The appearance of an iPad mini or nano is more likely than an equivalent iPhone as the form factor could accommodate a scaled user experience more successfully.

Apple could no doubt capitalise on the component deals that would let it enjoy better margins than its competitors. It's also unlikely to face complaints from developers. A second iPad with a similar resolution to the original would be nothing to support compared with the so-called fragmentation of the Android platform.

The two factors in Apple's iPad decision

However, whether a seven-inch iPad ever sees the light of day or not seems to come down to two main factors.

First is whether Apple believes the seven-inch form factor complements the nascent tablet market. It would need to be convinced the smaller device genuinely has an opportunity to carve out a segment for itself and wouldn't risk cannibalisation of the existing iPad. If it believes this opportunity exists, then the chance to dominate the whole post-PC tablet market will be sorely tempting for Apple.

The second factor is whether Apple can design and manufacture a smaller form factor iPad that does not compromise the user experience of the existing one - either in terms of the smaller iPad in itself or in comparison with its larger brethren. If it can't at least replicate the user experience of the existing iPad, if the brand risks being compromised by an inferior experience, then I think they'll walk away from it.

Jobs was adamant on this second point and this devotion to preserving the user experience is part of Apple's DNA. If it can't be made "insanely great", then the seven-inch iPad will remain on the steel tables in Ive's design studio.