Could an 'iPad mini' stamp out the Kindle Fire?

Rumors of a 7-inch 'iPad mini' continue to flood the Internet. Will Apple CEO Tim Cook succumb to the popularity of smaller, cheaper tablets such as the Kindle Fire, or continue to follow in Steve Jobs' footsteps?

Tim Wimborne/Reuters
Passerby look at Apple's new iPad in a window display at an Apple store in Sydney. Some say Apple would beat out the tablet competition if it released a 7-inch model of the iPad.

In 2010, Steve Jobs said an iPad mini would be “dead on arrival.” But the new Apple CEO Tim Cook might not have the same theory. The popular gaming website Kotaku translated a report from China on a smaller $249-299 iPad ­­that may be released in the third quarter of this year. This iPad mini would combat the Kindle Fire and yet-to-be-released Windows 8 tablets.

This isn’t the first rumor about an “iPad mini,” as journalists have deemed the mythical device. But it’s helped fuel the debate as to whether Apple should release a cheaper, more portable version of the wildly successful iPad.

Jobs didn’t think so. He said that a smaller tablet is “meaningless unless your tablet also includes sandpaper so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of their present size.” In other words, he didn’t think a 7-inch tablet would be fully functional or able to display the highest screen resolution possible (as the new iPad does).

With the advent of devices such as the Kindle Fire, a second tablet market has been created that some say shouldn't be ignored. While the new iPad has a leg up on the competition because of its crystal clear retina display, lightning fast processor, and a heap of popular apps, the Kindle Fire has several advantages ­– portability and lower price.

Jeff Orr, group director of consumer research at ABI Research, said smaller tablets are poised to become more popular than their larger predecessors. He told PCWorld that “customers in emerging markets were more likely to buy low-cost tablets with screen sizes between 7 inches and 9 inches than Apple’s iPad.” (The iPad has a 9.7-inch screen.)

While Apple effectively created the tablet market with the release of the first generation iPad, the company made a conscious decision to stick to a single model. Beyond the three storage sizes, the original iPad came in only black, with 3G through only AT&T, and only a 9.7-inche screen. Apple eventually opened up to a white frame and Verizon service. But if you want a smaller screen, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Good thing that there’s been a second wave of mid-size, cheaper tablets – including the very well reviewed Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Color.

Analyst Shaw Wu of the brokerage firm Sterne Agee said he doesn’t think Apple will release another iPad model anytime soon, but that the popularity of mini-tablets should be addressed.

“We do not sense that the release of an iPad mini is imminent and quite frankly, exact timing is difficult to predict,” Wu told Apple Insider. “However, we do believe it makes both fundamental and strategic sense for [Apple] to address at some point.”

If Cook decides to take the plunge into the world of smaller tablets, he will have steered the company away from Jobs’ vision. (Or at least what Jobs said was his vision. The former Apple CEO had a history for trashing an idea in the press and then implementing it a year later.) All of Apple’s current products still have Jobs’ signature on them, not Cook’s. An iPad mini could be a chance for Cook to demonstrate his own vision.

Cook and the Apple board members are now faced with a decision, if they haven’t made it already. Will Apple steer away from its “we did it perfectly the first time” mind-frame in favor of a new iPad model? Or will the company stick to its guns and try to beat devices like the Kindle Fire with a completely new product?

Only one thing is for sure – while tablets might be getting smaller, this battle is only getting bigger. 

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