Apple Announces iPad Mini

Faced with falling market share in the tablet market because of low-priced and smaller competitors, Apple this week announced a tiny tablet of its own. But the iPad mini, as it’s called, isn’t low priced at all. Like most Apple products, it is instead a premium product with a commensurate price tag.

“iPad mini is every inch an iPad,” Apple Senior Vice President Philip Schiller noted. “iPad mini is as thin as a pencil and as light as a pad of paper, yet packs a fast [processor], [video conferencing capabilities] ... and ultrafast wireless―all while delivering up to 10 hours of battery life.”

Whereas the original iPad spawned a new market for what’s now called media tablets, the iPad mini follows in the footsteps of successful competitors like Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD and, to a much lesser degree, the Google Nexus 7. Both devices sport 7" screens and start at under $200. And both are credited with triggering a significant drop-off in iPad market share, as I previously discussed in "Report: iPad Falling Behind Android in Tablet Market."

The iPad mini is Apple’s response, and though it compromises in two key areas—price and screen resolution—it delivers on the firm’s vaunted build quality and form-factor thinness, and should perform quite well against its 7" competitors when it arrives in November. (Wi-Fi-only versions will be sold first, followed by versions with cellular broadband.)

Essentially a shrunken iPad with thinner bezels on two sides, the iPad mini utilizes a suddenly old-fashioned 1024 x 768 screen that is lower in resolution than the 1280 x 800 offering on the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7. It’s also a 4:3 display, rather than the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio used by those competitors and, notably, by Apple’s own iPhone 5 and iPod touch devices. But the upside is that the new iPad mini can run existing iPad apps without modification.

No one doubts the quality of Apple’s hardware, and the iPad apps and media ecosystem is, of course, a clear leader. But the iPad mini costs significantly more than its competitors, with a basic, Wi-Fi-only model costing $329—a whopping $130 more than the $200 Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7. And iPad mini prices soar, as only Apple products can, to a lofty $659, not including a cover. That’s about $200 more than the average selling price of a Windows laptop.

But wait, it gets weirder.

Although many had expected the iPad mini to replace the early-2011 iPad 2 model that Apple was previously still selling as a sort-of low-end iPad, Apple instead will continue to keep that older model in the market as a new mid-line offering.

And even more strangely, Apple is also replacing the flagship third-generation iPad, which it called “the new iPad” and introduced back in March, with a newer version. The fourth-generation iPad, which Apple now calls “the iPad with Retina Display,” includes a slightly improved processor and of course Apple’s suddenly ubiquitous Lightning connector port. So the “new” iPad lasted just seven months in the market.

Heading into the holiday season, Apple’s product line is suddenly quite convoluted and filled with a collection of products both new and old. The firm that once bragged about a grid of four basic product lines now sells so many different models and versions that it’s impossible to keep track of them all. For example, if you look just at the iPad, factor in the available color, storage capacity, and different wireless carrier choices (on the versions with cellular broadband), there are more than 50 different iPads from which to choose, just in the United States. (And they only come in black and white!) The iPhone lineup, in which Apple continues to sell two-and-a-half-year-old iPhone 4 and one-year-old iPhone 4S handsets, offers a similarly wide range of choices.

Maybe this isn’t Apple’s fault. To compete with the horde of Android cloners that spam the market with smartphone handsets and tablets on an almost weekly basis, Apple has been forced to keep aging products in the market long after they’ve ostensibly been replaced by newer versions. I don’t begrudge them this strategy, and it certainly gives its customers more choice. But it seems to be undercutting the simplification gains that Steve Jobs wrought at Apple a decade ago, a key differentiator between this luxury brand and the me-too ripoffs with which it competes.

Ultimately, Apple might be sacrificing its soul to maintain its position in the market. And the iPad mini is a great example of a product that Apple said it would never sell, now available in a bewildering array of versions that would have been inconceivable just a few short years ago.

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