Switched On: Trading places

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Switched On trading places

If widespread rumors hold true, the coming weeks will see two of the most successful tablet vendors invade each other's screen size turf. Apple, which once rebuked the 7-inch tablet as unfit for normally proportioned human hands, appears ready to try its own hand at an iPad rumored to be on the larger side of the 7- to 8-inch range. Amazon, which lagged its bookselling rival Barnes & Noble in bringing out a color tablet, stands ready to introduce an infernal successor to the Kindle Fire that may include a display that is close to 9-inches or larger.

It's not quite the first ride along the screen size escalator for either company. For Apple, a smaller iPad would fill in the iOS screen size gap between the iPhone and iPad. For Amazon, also rumored to be working on a phone, a larger color tablet would revisit the ground it explored to lackluster results with the Kindle DX. That product hasn't kept up with even e-paper-based e-readers with advances such as touchscreens and side-lighting, both of which are found in the latest Nook Simple Nook.

While the pricing rivalry between the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet drummed up interest in the 7-inch tablet category and the performance of the Nexus 7 advanced it, Apple -- due in part to the iPad's global presence versus these competitors -- has remained high atop the tablet market. Indeed, Amazon's success in the color tablet market stems not only from the product's low price relative to most other tablets regardless of screen size, but also its staking out of a market segment that Apple seemed reluctant to pursue.

Apple's introduction of an "iPad mini" would turn up the heat on the Kindle Fire but Amazon could still likely beat Apple on price. The tougher challenge for the online retailer will be taking Apple on in the larger screen sizes where few companies have scratched the retinal surface of the iPad's volume. Here, too, Amazon will likely undercut Apple, but that strategy has not been very effective for a host of Android-based competitors, and it became an even more challenging task when Apple kept the iPad 2 in the market at $399. Not only that, but those tablets have had full access to Android Market and its successor Google Play, which includes a far greater selection of apps than Amazon's Appstore for Android.

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But, as is well-understood these days, this battleground would not be among four devices but rather (at least) two ecosystems -- one driven by Apple's mature app library, another by Amazon's content and services anchored in Amazon Prime. Amazon's recent delivery of its Instant Video app for the iPad mitigates some of the Kindle Fire's advantage in a large screen size, but helps to prime the pump for what the company can do in a larger-format color Kindle Fire focused on content consumption and it would help keep the tablet atop Android-based competitors. In addition, a larger format Kindle Fire could have appeal to Amazon's avid reader customer base looking for a better platform on which to view magazines.

Apple, on the other hand, would be sure to use compatibility with tens of thousands of optimized iPad apps running on its newly minted iOS 6 to differentiate a smaller iPad from a host of other smaller tablets. It would also create an opportunity to deliver the iPad experience at a lower price. Such a product could also offer a richer alternative to the iPod touch, which has lost some of its appeal versus the iPhone as Apple's smartphone has proliferated to many more carriers since its days of AT&T exclusivity.

The releases would mark the last salvos from the market leader and an aggressive niche-carver before the onslaught of competition from Windows 8, which seeks to redefine the tablet experience by gluing it on to the full PC capabilities of a desktop environment. They will also put more pressure on other Android tablets which, despite the success that Google has seen taking a page from the Kindle Fire's e-book, continue to struggle on the whole.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is principal analyst at Reticle Research, an advisory firm focused on consumer technology. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.