Editorial: My next iPad won't be a 7-incher, but I wish it could be

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Editorial: My next iPad won't be a 7-incher, but I wish it could be
It took me a while, but I'm starting to fall in love with my iPad in a way I haven't loved a gadget for a long while. There's something about the form factor, the apps, the OS that feels just right and makes me want to do as much of my daily computing on it as possible. Of course, that's still a pretty small sliver of my overall day, and the iPad isn't even close to replacing my laptop for the large majority of my work, but I'm finding myself increasingly doing casual browsing, casual gaming, serious writing, and, yes, even some reading on Apple's 10-inch tablet.

But I have one "big" problem with the tablet that doesn't look like it'll be solved anytime soon: it's not 7 inches. Will Apple ever eat its words and build a smaller iPad, or will the 7-inch form factor be left to the rest of the emerging tablet market to fight over?

The iPad was built by Apple, which means in a few months' time we're probably going to see a brand new version of the device that will somehow cast the current version in a very unfavorable light. We'll wonder what all the fuss was about. "You mean the first iPad couldn't even do video calls?" could be the iPad's version of "You mean the iPhone didn't even have third party apps when it came out?" And of course, the current iPad is far from perfect. With impending competition from smaller, well-connected, camera-packing, Flash-compliant, and / or cheaper tablets (the Galaxy Tab, Nook Color, and BlackBerry PlayBook, to name a few), what's Apple planning for its second-generation iPad to keep a hold on its sizable market lead?

First off, I don't really have any idea. It's probably a pretty safe bet that Apple will be adding the iPad to its stable of FaceTime-compatible devices, courtesy of a camera or two, and apparently the screen is getting some sort of tweak, but that's about all anyone can safely guess. One thing I am pretty certain on, however, is that the new iPad won't come in a 7-inch flavor. Steve Jobs pretty soundly trashed all the swirling rumors of a 7-inch iPad on Apple's earnings call a couple months ago ("This size is useless unless you include sandpaper so users can sand their fingers down to a quarter of their size."), and I'm not too happy about that.

However have we managed with these 3.5-inch iPhone screens all this time?

I mean, his argument is simply absurd. If the only way to make the iOS UI work was a 10-inch screen, however have we managed with these 3.5-inch iPhone screens all this time? Apple could of course make a usable 7-inch interface out of the iOS elements, but they're either afraid of further development fragmentation, or consumer confusion (is this a phone or a tablet?), or both. Prior to the iPad's success I might be a little worried about the first problem: can you really expect developers to build all-new apps, or all-new-formatted apps, for an unproven new device? But the iPad showed the flexibility of the OS and the eagerness of its developers. Also, no offense intended, but Samsung has also done a pretty good job of showing what some of the iPad's UI ideas might look on a 7-inch form factor. At the end of the day, the iPad is a computer, and computers have always come in different sizes -- even from Apple.

See, I love the Nook Color and the Galaxy Tab -- for the form factor. Like it or not, Apple has the most mature software for a tablet, and a great complement of apps. I don't see that changing very soon, but I can't help but yearn for an iPad that's as small and light and comfortable as this new Nook. My biggest problem with the iPad is its shortcomings as an e-reader. First off, it's heavy. Josh noticed it in his review, and it hasn't gotten any lighter over time, no matter how many iPad-curl reps I do. Next up, it's just a little large for curling up with like you do with a book. Combining the curl-up-incompatibility and the weight and I've actually managed to hit myself in the face numerous times with the iPad while attempting to recline with it. Third, the screen's resolution is inferior to many e-ink displays, along with the high-res LCDs being used on the 7-inch Tab and Nook Color and PlayBook. Finally, the glass front might look classy, but it's terrible for glare, particularly when it's outside. Barnes & Noble attempted to fend off this glare a bit with the Nook Color, and while they didn't succeed entirely, I appreciate the effort: its results are certainly better than the glossy glass norm.

What's really amazing is that despite all these shortcomings, all signs point to the iPad being a runaway success as a reading device, both for books and for documents. It could be the software, which includes iBooks, Amazon Kindle, and excellent document viewers like GoodReader, or the fact that once people invest in an iPad they don't really feel like buying or carrying a Kindle alongside. No matter what, you don't see many regular users complaining about their inability to read on the thing, no matter how much I struggle. Perhaps this means Apple has nothing to worry about, but it's a nice in for the competition -- one which will be stressed endlessly, I have no doubt.

I doubt Apple will be dislodged from its tablet market share throne within the next year, but if they did fall to one weakness it would probably be price. I'm speaking mainly of the Nook Color, which seems to value a 7-inch LCD reading device (with an eventual promise of apps and more robust iPad competition) at $249. With Apple's top-end iPhone going for $299 and its best iPod touch at $399, it's hard to imagine the iPad getting too much cheaper, but Barnes & Noble doesn't have any such cannibalization or consumer confusion to worry about. Perhaps the $249 tag's worst aspect will be to make the B&N offering seem "cheap" or "low-end" but I doubt the large majority of consumers will care too terribly much.

So, let's assume (as is reasonable) that Apple won't be going to 7 inches this time around. Should it "spend" its annual update on blowing out the feature set, or stay conservative on functionality and go aggressive on price? Can it do both? Let's say Apple scrounges up a 4x resolution "Retina Display" for the iPad to improve the device's reading chops, scrounges up some sort of carbon fiber manufacturing technique to improve weight (although that aluminum back is hardly the worst of the iPad's weight problems), bumps the RAM to help out with multitasking, and bolts on a couple of cameras. That's not even considering some sort of new processor, which might be necessary to keep the iPad's graphics looking better than stretched-out iPhone 4 games, and any other features Apple might be dreaming up. It all sounds pretty pricey to me.

On the other hand, Apple could pull an "iPhone 3G," make a few minor tweaks, keep most of the same internals, and lower the price. Unfortunately, most of the 3G's wild price drop ($399 down to $199) came from a new subsidy model with AT&T, not a sacrifice of Apple's margins, so that makes this move pretty unlikely. Also, the speeds-and-feeds nerd within balks at the prospect of a whole iPad generation that hardly moves the needle on specs. Of course, all this hand wringing might be a bit silly: Apple could easily sell a new feature-packed version for $499 alongside a cheaper last-gen model for, say, $399, as it's done with the iPhone 3G / 3GS and 3GS / 4. Still, that assumes the iPad is getting dramatically cheaper to produce over time, which isn't necessarily a sure thing -- and, again, there's no carrier here for Apple to lean on and make up the cost.

No matter where we end up landing on price and features next year, and no matter which tablet brand ends up reigning supreme in the coming decade, it's going to be pretty obvious that competition is a wonderful thing. I just wish that competition had showed up early enough to force Apple into selling me a 7-inch iPad next year.

Oh, and if you're feeling like a little bit of compromise, Apple: I'd settle for eight.

Paul Miller is Engadget's resident Pixel Density Enthusiast. His opinions are his own.
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