What is the iPad Mini For?

Many saw the launch of the new iPad mini as the latest sign that Apple has lost its way. Trip Chowdhry at Global Equities’ reaction to the announcement exemplified this viewpoint: “Key take aways: Innovation at Apple is over.”

The thesis goes like this: the scaled-down iPad is not a new product but a line extension, with no raison d’être other than to plug a gap between iPhone and iPad as a competitive defense against lower-priced devices like Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus 7. My friends shake their heads in puzzlement: Apple’s not supposed to imitate rivals and fill in spaces on a chart. They’re supposed to develop revolutionary, blue-ocean products. They’re supposed to redefine how people think of computers. Apple must have lost its mojo.

These people are wrong. Apple is following the same playbook it has for the last fifteen years – redesigning the computer to perfectly fit underserved jobs-to-be-done.

Steve Jobs deeply understood that the personal computer is the most powerful and flexible tool ever built, yet it was trapped for decades in a shape Apple itself created – a box with a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse. Put computing power in any other form factor and no one recognizes it. We saw the iPhone as just a flashy smartphone, rather than a disruptive minicomputer. The iPad was just a big iPod Touch. And the iPad mini is just a shrunken iPad, right?

The problem is that at first, we see these devices in terms of their appearance and features. What we don’t see is how we’ll use them. When the iPad was first introduced, more attention was paid to “missing” features like USB ports than to the facts that it could be awakened instantly and had 10 hours of battery life. But these attributes radically change how a computer will be used. Few people casually grab a laptop off their bedside table to watch a movie while lying on their side.

Apple gets this. As Phil Schiller unveiled the iPad mini on stage, all he talked about were what the tech community calls “use cases”:

“So what else can we do to help customers find even more uses for iPad, to use it in places they never imagined, in manners they never have before? … What can you do with an iPad Mini that you can’t already do with the amazing 4th generation iPad?”  

As he began to answer that question, the first thing Schiller did was demonstrate that it was easier to hold with one hand. That may not seem like a radical departure from something already as portable as the iPad, until you look at the use cases it enables. In the Apple keynote, I noticed two in particular for which Schiller reserved his most superlative adjectives. The brilliant Apple observers John Gruber of Daring Fireball and MG Siegler of parislemon and TechCrunch immediately honed in on the same two in their respective iPad mini reviews:

1) Gaming:

  • Schiller: “If you love playing games, playing incredibly amazing games, like Real Racing 2, are incredible on the new iPad.”
  • Gruber: “I was not expecting iPad 3 performance in the Mini. But it’s there, and that makes the iPad Mini great for games. I think there are going to be a staggering number of iPad Minis in Santa’s sack this year.”
  • Siegler: “[Gaming is] clearly where this new iPad is going to shine … If Apple had only made the iPad mini as a gaming device, I think it would be one of the best-selling gadgets of all time … Playing games on the iPad mini is fantastic because the device is much easier to hold for extended periods of time in the landscape position.”

2) Reading

  • Schiller: “It’s fantastic for kicking back and reading a magazine or a book on.”
  • Gruber“The Mini feels optimized for reading”
  • Siegler: “Books, magazines, and reading apps are likely to be another big use-case for the iPad mini.”

This isn’t rocket science. People also use the regular iPad (as well as the iPhone and traditional PCs) for gaming and reading – both massive markets. But neither is really well suited for those tasks. You don’t need a 9-inch screen or a life-size QWERTY keyboard for either, and arms tend to tire holding something that weighs a pound and a half for hours. Yet the iPhone is too small. The iPad mini is perfect.

If you think about products in terms of use cases rather than features, Apple customers now have legitimate reasons to own as many as five Apple devices. It’s not hard to imagine strapping an iPod nano to your arm for your morning run, using an iPhone as your all-in-one pocket communicator throughout the workday, reading or playing games on an iPad mini to pass your travel time, doing heavy emailing and other work on a MacBook, and leisurely watching evening shows and movies on an Apple TV. All of these devices could be classified as computers of some sort, and their feature overlap is high. But Apple has built each to do different jobs. Depending on what you like to do, you may only own one or two of these, but you don’t have to settle for a device that tries to be everything to everyone.

Pundits and analysts think about what products can do, but Apple thinks about what people will do. That’s why the iPad mini is misunderstood.

In short, Apple has once again introduced a new product using familiar technology, but built for different use cases from previous products. As usual, the initial response has been disappointment. And as usual, it will sell in the tens of millions. It seems to me that Apple hasn’t changed one bit.

3 thoughts on “What is the iPad Mini For?

  1. Nice post John! I agree with you that the iPad mini unlocks some interesting use cases that were previously underserved by iPads and iPhones. The Apple move that has me more miffed is the iPhone5. Why do you think they decided to go with a bigger screen? I can’t make the argument that the larger iPhone5 screen actually serves different jobs than the smaller iPhone screen. But by introducing different screen sizes, Apple has begun down the path of fragmentation that has plagued Android. It was a really strange move.

    • It’s a great question, Jon. I don’t have a definitive answer. I think part of it is that they actually do recognize that for many use cases (e.g. watching YouTube videos), bigger (or longer at least) is better. The 16:9 aspect ratio works much better for video too. I realize this contradicts the argument in this post, but the iPhone is at a different stage in its lifecycle – I think this is meant to be a significant but ultimately incremental improvement at the end of the day, whereas the iPad mini is a major redesign with new use cases.

      In terms of fragmentation, John Gruber at Daring Fireball had some good points about how devs already have to adapt to iOS height changes due to the notification bar, so this isn’t as drastic as a new height and width. It does take it further out of sync with the iPad, but I think those apps have evolved to be fundamentally different anyways (i.e. there are few successful iPad apps that are merely scale-ups of iPhone apps).

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