23 Oct 2012

The incredible shrinking Apple iPad: hit or miss?

Computing giant Apple is expected to announce a smaller version of its iconic iPad today, in a bid to compete with a rash of tablet computers being touted by its rivals.

Computing giant Apple is expected to announce a smaller version of its iconic iPad today, in a bid to compete with a rash of tablet computers being touted by its rivals.

The iPad mini is rumoured to have a seven-inch screen – the same category as Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus 7. Tablet computing is a febrile market – 56 million of them were sold in 2011, according to Forrester research. Around 30 million of those were iPads. But with so many players on the scene, the company’s continuing dominance of the market is far from assured, writes technology producer Geoff White.

Since the launch of the iPod in October 2001, Apple has had an almost infallible game plan: find a product that doesn’t work as well as it should; make a perfect Apple version of it; launch and market that product slickly; use the hardware to drive a sales engine.

Take the iPod as an example. MP3 players were clunky, so Apple made a far superior version in the iPod. It was launched with typical Apple aplomb by polo-neck sweatered chief exec Steve Jobs. The ads were fabulous.

iPod owners were tied into using iTunes and so all sales had to go through Apple, but the offering was so neat users didn’t mind. Added to which, the hard-headed deals wagered with music publishers by Tim Cook, who became chief exec after Jobs’s death, meant the right songs were available, and they made the company billions.

The problem is that Apple must keep finding new sectors in which to innovate, because as it moves ahead its competitors will sail into its wake and steal its customers.

No such thing as a free launch

Apple reformed music players, then smartphones, then tablets. Now the company seems to feel it has run out of ground. Its product launches in the last few years have simply been different iterations of the original offering – new versions of the iPhone or iPad. Today’s launch looks like it will be the same: a “new” product that’s simply a smaller version of an existing one.

Apple seems to be undergoing a period of creative drought, and with Samsung nipping at its heels (and fighting patent proxy wars around the world. the company must come up with something new.

There is one obvious area ripe for the Apple treatment: television. Over the last few years, the humble gogglebox has undergone a quiet revolution. As we reported, if you buy a TV today in Currys, you’re confronted with what is essentially a large computer screen running a PC-like home page.

But the offering for consumers is confused, and the interface is often terrible. Apple could really dominate here. It would also open up another technology backwater ripe for exploitation – gesture control.

Again, current technology is promising but poor. Under Jobs, this would be an area Apple would have plunged into. Under Cook, they seem to be wavering on the diving board.

As one of the world’s richest companies by share valuation, Apple can afford to rest on its laurels. Being worth $600bn or so can buy a company a lot of gloating time.

But anyone who thinks that Apple’s dominance is assured should take a cautionary glance at Nokia. That company was also once the golden child of tech – and reaction to its recent results shows how far the mighty can fall.