There's been much debate over the idea of a 7-inch iPad from Apple. Today, our pals at MacObserver jumped into the mix with their take on things. The Kindle Fire, Ted Landau points out, offers "an e-reader with added iPad-like features for half the price of an iPad."
Speaking as a happy Kindle Fire owner, I rather like the medium form factor. This is not an opinion universally shared in the TUAW trenches, but I appreciate the way I can carry it around in a purse -- something not possible with the iPad. That means, when I head out, I now often take the iPhone and the Fire along, where as before I'd have only had the iPhone with me. My iPad remains reserved for backpack or briefcase excursions.
A 7" screen offers a very good reading size. It's more portable than the iPad screen and offers more area than the iPhone. It also excels at gaming and video watching, providing that same middle balance.
As far as form alone goes, I think Apple could find a ready audience of customers who'd be happy to pick up a smaller unit at a bargain price, especially if it was 3G-ready like the iPad, and equipped with a Retina display for better reading.
The challenges come from two places: market fragmentation and software reach. When Apple introduced the iPad, it had a clear niche to fill: tablet computing held in the crook of your arm. A much larger screen yet small enough for easy portability. A smaller version of that tablet would be nice, and it would sell, but it wouldn't support a unique raison d'etre.
Apple does not want to return to the mid '90's with dozens of Performa and Quadra models littering its product line. When someone walks into an Apple Store, they need to want to buy a particular thing, not make choices between nuanced variations of the same idea. A 7" model, no matter how nice it would serve as a reader, doesn't add to the strength of Apple's bottom line. It doesn't create demand, it confuses it, even if the 7" is offered at a bargain price.
The second issue is the App Store. Although better developers do design with strong resolution-independence, you cannot assume that apps will simply work on new geometries. Launch screens differ, icons differ, proportions differ, and so forth. To create a polished app that fits properly into a new resolution is a big job. Apple would have to once again fragment their App Store to serve that, a step that's somewhat bigger than you might first expect.
As a developer, I lived through the iPad introduction and know that that kind of major OS and display fragmentation is not to be undertaken lightly. A lot of technology, infrastructure, terminology, and so forth has to follow on to the simple introduction of new hardware.
There's a lot of buzz about the pressure on Apple these days to follow up in the reader world with better markets, platforms, and tools -- I've been writing quite a bit about that topic this month, and there's rumors flying about what we might see announced soon. But I can't exactly see how a 7" tablet would help Apple respond to those issues, although I know I'd certainly buy one for myself.
For me this comes down to a split between yes, I'd love one personally, and no, I don't think it would be in Apple's best interest to go there. Did Apple get "caught with its pants down at Christmas" as it lacked a 7-inch model? I don't think so. Are they working on a 7-inch tablet now? I'm slightly on the "probably not" side, for the reasons I stated above.