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Menage á tablet: Apple vs Amazon vs Google

The three-way fight for the 7in form-factor

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Enter... Apple

Rumours of a 7-8in Apple 'iPad Mini' have been regularly surfacing for the best part of a year now, with only Steve Jobs' one-time dismissal of the form-factor to suggest Apple isn't working on one.

While Apple might reasonably have dismissed the 7in form-factor in the past - not least because the iPad was so certainly establishing ten inches as the 'right' size for tablets in the minds of consumers - that's harder to do now that Amazon and Google are pursuing it.

They chose seven inches for two reasons: it's more mobile and - perhaps the really important criterion - it's more readily distinguishable from the iPad.

Apple may choose to cede the 7in market to others - just as it ignores the low-cost laptop market - in order to focus its attention on maintaining its lead in the more lucrative 10in market, but it too makes money selling content, and with all those apps and media to cash in on, it would be foolish to ignore a growing segment of the tablet market.

Anecdotally, I know a fair few folk who still use regular e-book readers and smartphones for content consumption because they don't want to wave a ten-inch tablet around on a crowded underground train. They'd like a device with a larger screen - or colour, in the case of e-book reader users - but they want one that's more portable and more discreet.

A more portable, discreet iPad

Matthew McKee, of research company Strategy Analytics, reckons the iPad Mini would directly challenge Amazon's regular Kindles, the Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook, creating an entirely new market segment for the Mac maker.

"Assuming a price of as little as $299, the smaller device would offer cost and portability advantages, which could propel Apple to the top of the 7in tablet space, in addition to its number one position for 10in tablets," he says.

"Device value is determined by what consumers can read, play, or watch on their tablet, and about the user experience, something that has been sadly lacking in the $200 tablet range," says Peter King, also of Strategy Analytics.

Quite how Android 4.1 Jelly Bean's more content-centric UI shapes up remains to be seen, but while the Kindle Fire had content in spades, its UI is prosaic and unimpressive. In iTunes and iOS Apple has lots of great content and a good UI. It could be very tough to beat in the 7in market.

The question, then, Apple bosses will be asking each other is will a move into the 7in market add to sales of the 10in iPad, or cannibalise them.

Such is Apple's lead in the tablet market as a whole, shifting sales from one segment to another may not matter, and by offering a form-factor that a lot of folk clearly want, it could even extend its leadership.

Then there's the nature of the tablet. Beyond increasing the CPU speed a little, upping the storage capacity and improving the specifications of lesser components like the cameras, there's not a lot Apple can really do to evolve the current iPad's hardware. Doubling the display resolution again, for instance, is not going to improve it much, if at all.

Apple may have little choice at this point but to widen the iPad range. ®

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