Is the iPad Mini a defensive play for Apple?

The idea of Apple launching the iPad Mini would suggest that Android is clearly hurting the tech giant more than it would care to admit.

Remember when Steve Jobs told us 7-inch tablets were "dead on arrival"? The benevolent dictator of iGagdets decreed that 9.7 inches was the perfect size for a tablet, while 3.5 inches was the "sweet spot" for a smartphone.

Rather than giving the people what they want, Jobs' approach was always to tell the people what they wanted. Question his wisdom and you were shouted down by the Apple faithful. Of course that was back in the days when Apple dominated the handheld gadget space and could call the shots, but those days are gone.

These days combined Android sales account for more than half of all smartphone sales. Even Samsung's share alone is rivaling iPhone sales. In some ways it's not a fair fight, because Android comes on gadgets of all shapes and sizes. For every slick and expensive HTC One or a Samsung Galaxy S III you'll find a few cheap (and sometimes nasty) Android handsets to cater to the low-end market.

Meanwhile Apple's one-size-fits-all iGadgets tend to come at premium prices. To be fair to Apple this approach has served it well for many years. It helped create the extensive iOS unified ecosystem which is one of Apple's key strengths (unlike the fragmented mess that is Android). Premium pricing has also filled Apple's coffers, as there was no need to release a stripped-down budget iPhone or iPad. Why sell an iPhone mini for $400 when people will happily line up around the block to pay $800 for an iPhone.

The Android threat gets serious

But then Android finally became a serious threat, not just on paper but on sales charts. Apple unleashed its legal dogs of war, but at the same time it was forced to reconsider its "iWay or the Highway" approach to gadget design.

The release of the iPhone 5 marked a significant milestone in Apple's war with Android, giving ammunition to those claiming Apple is simply playing catch up. The iPhone price tag remains the same, but the larger 4-inch display is certainly an acknowledgement of the Android threat. I don't think loyal iPhone users were crying out for extra screen real estate, but with Android outselling Apple's wunderphone it was clearly necessary for Cupertino to respond to the "mine's bigger than yours" taunts.

In the end the iPhone 5's larger display is rather underwhelming, it's taller but no wider so things on the screen don't appear any larger unless you turn the phone on its side. It's certainly not as impressive as the expanses of screen real estate on the 4.7-inch Android superphones.

The Apple faithful might suddenly be converts to the 4-inch form factor, but it's unlikely to help the iPhone claw back any ground from the Android giants.

Perhaps outweighing the gains of the extra screen real estate is the fact the iPhone 5's change in screen size and aspect ratio will further fragment the iOS ecosystem (not to mention the switch to the new 8-pin Lightning connector). Not only does the design variation make it harder to share accessories between devices, it also makes it harder for iOS app developers to offer a consistent user experience across devices. In some ways Apple has played into Android's hands -- sacrificing one of the iPhone's key strengths even though the change is unlikely to win people back from Android.

No gain for fragmentation pain 

Considering the state of play between Apple and Android, talk of a smaller iPad Mini is more significant than ever. Apple claimed 80 per cent of consumer tablet sales 12 months ago, but  that's now down to 50 per cent thanks to the likes of Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Amazon's Kindle Fire. Once again Apple stands at the crossroads, faced with the choice of sticking with its one-size-fits-all approach or trying to beat Android at its own game.

In some ways there's nothing to be gained from a smaller, and presumably cheaper, iPad Mini except cannibalising iPad sales and further fragmenting the iOS ecosystem. The Apple faithful might rush to add the iPad mini to their iGadget collection, but beyond them every iPad mini sale is potentially a lost iPad sale. You can be sure that Apple will limit the iPad Mini is some ways to reduce its impact on iPad sales, although this would only further fragment the platform.

Just like the 4-inch iPhone, it's only pressure from Android that's forcing Apple to supposedly contemplate the iPad Mini. It's a defensive move, with Apple finally forced to choose between selling an iPad Mini or handing a customer over to Android. You could make the same argument about the rumoured Apple Television. It makes no sense for Apple to get into the cut-throat television market, with its razor-thin margins, when it can simply sell Apple TV set-top boxes and then rake in the cash from content and services. But as Sony, Samsung and the others embrace internet television it negates the need for an Apple TV. Apple might have no choice but to wade into the flat screen war rather than stand by while the competition steals away customers. Likewise Apple may have no choice to offer a stripped-down iPad.

Justifying Apple's iPad Mini would have been a stretch even for Steve Jobs' reality distortion field, but his "like it or lump it" style clearly hasn't held the Android army at bay. The time for benevolent dictatorships has passed and Apple needs to reinvent both itself and its gadgets if it wants to claw back sales from Android.

When you look at the big picture it seems the iPad Mini is inevitable. Perhaps not this year, but eventually Apple will concede just like it did with the larger iPhone 5. There are plenty of reasons why the iPad mini makes no sense but, as Apple's grip on the market slips, it may have little choice but to fight by Android's rules.

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