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Apple's iPad Mini: Less Is Less Interesting

Whatever the next level is for Apple, the iPad Mini won't be enough to get there. Apple needs another revolutionary product line.
10 Tablets To Shake Up 2012
10 Tablets To Shake Up 2012
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Next month, Apple is widely expected to introduce the iPad Mini, a 7" version of the company's popular iPad. And as usual, Apple's silence about its intentions has invited rampant speculation about the specifics of the device.

It's hard to imagine a less interesting discussion, and yet the tech press is compelled to mull the size, shape, and significance of the iPad Mini because readers have a seemingly insatiable appetite for Apple news. That interest, expressed in search queries, translates into visitor traffic when indulged or the absence of visitor traffic when ignored.

Like lampooned religious arguments about the number of angels able to dance on the head of a pin, the technical hairsplitting about whether the iPad Mini will be more like a large iPod or a small iPad, about the presence or absence of bezels, about the device's actual name--iPad Mini or iPad Air?--has never meant less.

Writing for ZDNet about the iPhone 5, Ben Woods observed that "Apple is in danger of becoming boring."

It's difficult to call a company as laconic as Apple boring. If you want boring, tune into Microsoft's promise to deliver a tablet, now well into its third year.

[ In the market for a new mobile device? Read Tablet Vs. Ultrabook: 10 Ways To Choose. ]

But the iPad Mini, or whatever it ends up being called--the iPod+, the iPad-, or the PodPad--has passed the danger zone. It is boring. Here's why.

1. It's a response rather than an innovation
Apple's co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs in 2010 said, "iPad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price." While Apple has applied the term "revolutionary" to dozens of its products, the iPad actually was revolutionary. But two-and-a-half years into the revolution (longer if you count from the launch of the iPhone, the beginning of the modern mobile era), a reduced-size iPad isn't enough to surprise or delight.

Like it or not, Amazon's Kindle line, Google's Asus-made Nexus 7, and Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 arrived first. The iPad Mini may be Apple's answer, but it's a reaction rather than a shot across the bow.

Products that come as answers have their limitations. As Picasso famously said about computers, "They are useless. They can only give you answers."

Computers, in other words, would be more interesting if they raised questions. The most interesting technology is that which calls things into question, the products that challenge our assumptions. The iPad, along with the iPhone, called the desktop computer industry and accepted norms of user interaction into question. The iPad Mini is merely an encore performance, an echo of a revolution.

2. Size only matters a little
John Gruber, who writes the Daring Fireball blog, argues that the salient feature of the iPad Mini will be its weight. He speculates that the device will be "remarkably thinner and lighter than its competitors."

That's a reasonable assumption: The third-generation iPad got heavier and thicker to accommodate its Retina display. Since superior display quality doesn't seem to be in the cards for the iPad Mini, Apple is almost obligated to take its device in the other direction, toward maximum thinness.

But that means size--the 7" form factor--isn't a major point of differentiation. And once size isn't part of the equation, you're left with the inescapable conclusion that it's just another iPad.

3. It's in the middle
The iPad Mini is boring because it's in the middle, in between an iPhone and an iPad. It's sure to be just right for some uses and it's sure to find fans. But unless it comes with a whole new set of iCloud services or unanticipated capabilities, it won't do anything better than its smaller and larger relatives.

4. Less is not more
There's a strong argument to be made that when it comes to technology, less is more. That's true when engineers have over-designed a device that would benefit from simplicity. When the iPad is compared to Android tablets, with their more complicated interfaces and menu options, less is more. But sometimes less doesn't really add anything. The iPad Mini needs to surpass the iPad in some significant way if it's going to matter.

5. Mobile won, now what?
Mobile devices won the revolution. It's now safe to assume that they will play an important role in IT for the foreseeable future. But Apple has been innovating in software and services more than hardware lately, as it tries to fortify its iOS empire. Siri and iCloud and new map app infrastructure are more interesting than a resized iPad or the company's recent lackluster revision of its Mac Pro.

Meanwhile, interesting hardware innovations keep showing up as Kickstarter projects.

This presents something of a challenge for Apple. What does it mean to be a maker of devices when the hardware takes a backseat to the software and the cloud services? And can Apple continue to be a hardware leader in an era of crowd-funded development?

Since the late 1990s, Apple has wowed the tech industry with bold designs--the original iMacs shocked the beige Windows world. And the hardware mattered because the CPUs got faster, the form factors shrank, and the graphics capabilities were always better than the year before.

These advances continue, but at a far more leisurely rate. And Apple isn't the only company that understands design and user interaction now. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and others get it.

Apple's products are less physically substantial than they used to be and less accessible. Apple's MacBook Pro with Retina display is sealed. Apple TV is a bland, black box. iCloud is intangible. Back when iCloud was Mobile.me at least it came in a shrink-wrapped box. You could injure someone with an original iPod. Throw an iPod Nano at someone and you'll just annoy them.

That's not to say Apple has lost the capacity to impress with its hardware. Apple is at the top of its game. But the problem with being at the top is that it's a lot harder to climb higher than to relax or descend.

Whatever the next level is for Apple, the iPad Mini won't be enough to get there. What does that leave? An Apple television set? That hardly seems like the spark for the next revolution.