Here’s why I think there will be a tablet from Apple that’s optimized for reading and has a 7″ retina display that runs iPhone apps unmodified, not a tablet with a 7.85″ display that runs iPad apps unmodified.
Perhaps you’ve read these Steve Jobs quotes before, they go something like this:
“The 7-inch form factor is not a good size for tablet applications” and “7-inch tablets should come with sandpaper, so that users can file down their fingers so they can use them.”
Note the words in bold.
Every rumor and theory about a smaller iPad I have seen seems to claim it will be 7.85″ with a 1024×768 screen. If that were the case, Steve Jobs would be right on the money with the above quotes. A 7.85″ 1024×768 display would be appropriate if the smaller tablet were designed to run iPad applications, because these applications could run unscaled on the device, at a 1:1 pixel ratio. However, the PPI of that 7.85″ screen would be 163. But the size of the user interface elements on iPad applications are tailored for a 132 PPI screen. If squeezed into 163 PPI, every button and control would become smaller, harder to accurately touch. Hence the need for sandpaper.
The same argument applies if the 7.85″ tablet had a retina display with the same resolution as the new iPad’s 2048×1536. It would have 326 PPI, but the UI elements of retina iPad applications are designed for 264 PPI. Sandpaper required.
But consider if the new tablet had a 7″ screen. What’s so special about 7″? A couple of very interesting things.
A 7″ diagonal screen (7.08″ to be exact) just happens to be the exact size of two by two iPod touch retina displays. That’s a 4″ x 6″ display surface. An iPod touch screen has 326 PPI. The 7″ screen would also have 326 PPI just like iPhones and iPods. This would yield a resolution of 1920 x 1280. This resolution would be able to run current retina iPhone applications pixel perfect using the traditional 4:1 pixel scaling, like retina displays do with non-retina apps.
What’s so special about that? By running iPhone applications on a larger screen, as opposed to running iPad applications on a smaller screen, you don’t need the sandpaper anymore. Heck, if you have fat fingers, you’ll rejoice. Larger touch targets are just easier to hit, but still look amazing, especially text, which will be drawn using the full 1920 x 1280 resolution. Anyone that finds the iPod touch or iPhone screen slightly cramped would love it, and could continue to enjoy amazing apps like iMovie, iPhoto, and other apps designed for iPhone.
So a 7″ tablet wouldn’t be an “iPad mini”, it would actually be more like an “iPod maxi”. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. A 7″ or 7.85″ tablet still has to have a clear purpose. To be able to do something far better than the smaller devices (iPod touch and iPhone) and far better than larger devices (the iPads).
The answer is: reading, and long “consumption” sessions. Reading is something that is not comfortably done on an iPad, compared to a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle. That’s because it is relatively very heavy (over 600 grams), and too large. The new iPad is even heavier. You can’t hold these up comfortably. They are also rather expensive, starting at $400, compared to a dedicated e-reader. That’s why my friends with iPads that like reading also bought and use a Kindle. Reading is also cumbersome on an iPod and iPhone, because they are just too cramped and tiny. For comfortable reading, you need a device that’s not more than 400 grams (determined by reading reviews of various e-readers), with a long lasting battery, a screen more tailored to reading than other iOS devices, and it has to be more affordable than an iPad.
The Apple “e-reader” I’m about to describe wouldn’t just be a great, inexpensive and sufficiently light reading device with a color retina display, it would also be a full iOS device capable of beautifully running iPhone apps.
An iPod touch costs $200. It is 0.28″ thick (7.2mm). It weighs 105 grams. If you think of a 7″ iOS “reader” device that is essentially 4 iPod touches put together in 2 x 2 formation, this device would end up being about 0.29″ thick (7.5mm), weigh 350g, and beautifully run retina iPhone apps unmodified using a perfect 4:1 pixel ratio. It would be slightly thicker for structural strength and extra battery space. It wouldn’t cost $800 because you don’t need 4 times the electronics. It would have more battery life than an iPod touch thanks to far more battery space. It would also weigh less than 4 iPod touches because not everything is multiplied by 4. Cost? I’d say $250 because the larger 1920×1280 display would cost slightly more, even if it would be iPod touch quality (inferior to iPhone or iPad display quality) and Apple factories are already perfectly tooled to make 326 PPI iPod-quality displays.
Apple would also optimize the display for “reading”, meaning, applying anti-reflection, more precise dimming and other technologies to it that it normally wouldn’t need or desire for iPods, iPhones or iPads. Yet iPhone apps would still run nicely on it, making it far more multi-purpose than a mere Kindle with e-ink, even if still not as awesome for reading in bright daylight.
E-readers are a nice market segment exploited by Amazon, wide open for Apple to expand into and dominate with iOS.