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Ihnatko: Why Apple was right to price iPad Mini at $329

SAN JOSE CA - OCTOBER 23:  The new iPad mini (L) fourth generatiiPad are displayed after they were unveiled

SAN JOSE, CA - OCTOBER 23: The new iPad mini (L) and fourth generation iPad are displayed after they were unveiled during an Apple special event at the historic California Theater on October 23, 2012 in San Jose, California. The iPad mini is Apple's smaller 7.9 inch version of the iPad tablet. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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Updated: November 27, 2012 10:51AM

Yeah, I was thoroughly surprised when Apple revealed the $329 price tag of the most-affordable iPad Mini. A rumor started floating a few days before the announcement and I dismissed it; I figured that Apple would want to plant their own mini tablet flag somewhere near the $199 price point of the Kindle Fire HD or the Google Nexus 7. I would have put money on $249 (assuming a $200 cost and a cozy profit) or $299 (still inside the psychological $2XX range).

I don’t think $329 is a mistake. Instead, it simply reveals how Apple thinks of the competition for the iPad Mini: They don’t think it exists. They choose to define the iPad as a premium post-PC computer that offers no compromises compared with the full-size iPad, apart from screen size and pixel density. I’ve tried all of the 7- to 8-inch tablets on the market and none of them fits that description even vaguely — so this definition is spot-on.

I think Apple respects the concept of “affordability.” It’s just not a driving passion for the company. Consumers who want an iPad but who haven’t bought one yet either wish it were smaller or they wish it were cheaper. The iPad Mini is designed to address only the first complaint. It’s in Apple’s nature to think: “Let’s build the highest-quality compact tablet on the market. Millions of people will respond strongly to that choice, despite the 65 percent price premium.”

Spend 10 minutes with an iPad and you’ll appreciate that the only corners Apple cut anywhere in its design are in the rounded edges of the case. It’s a real computer, through and through, and my iPad earns back every last penny I spent on it. Even when I travel with it as my sole computer, I’m not particularly aware that I’m making any sacrifices by leaving my $2,000 MacBook at home. So I’m certain that Apple won’t be proven wrong about the advantages of the iPad Mini or the number of consumers who are willing (even eager) to spend that extra $130 to get a hip-pocketable iPad instead of a similarly sized $199 Kindle or Android tablet.

But alongside my genuine admiration of Apple for raising bars, I also need to applaud other companies for opening doors.

The Nexus 7 tablet shouldn’t be denigrated for having a plastic back instead of aluminum unibody construction. The plastic back panel fits tightly with no gaps; I wasn’t aware that it was even removable until fairly recently. Design choices like this one don’t affect the usability of the device at all. They only make this tablet more affordable, and accessible to a far wider range of consumers. Let’s not ignore those people for whom the difference between $199 and $329 is almost totally unbridgeable.

(Google’s barely making any money at all on the $199 Nexus. But consumers still get a great tablet at a great price, and I don’t think the shortfall is going to force Larry Page and Sergey Brin to abort their project to have every last one of Google’s employees reproduced in life-sized solid milk chocolate form, terra cotta warrior-style.)

Kudos go to Amazon, as well. The Kindle e-book reader that debuted at $399 in 2007 now sells for $69. Given that a Kindle delivers more than 22,000 classic books for free, without any additional fees or service’s kind of a thrilling product, isn’t it? It’s practically inspirational.

And then there’s Chromebook. Ever since Google announced this project to develop a new operating system based entirely around cloud-based apps and storage, I’ve expressed a greater amount of affection for the project than actual enthusiastic support. This week, however, Google and Samsung released a new super-budget edition of the Chromebook. It’s a reasonably well-made notebook with a full range of ports and a normal-size screen and keyboard. It runs a compelling suite of free apps and it costs just $249.

A notebook that demands a connection to the Internet for nearly all of its operations requires some sacrifices, to be sure. Still, I’m stumped for an alternative example of a quality, complete notebook at anything near that price. It’s not a piece of junk. It’s something close to a true Volkscomputer, an opportunity for millions of low-income people to reap the full benefits of this modern, digital world without having to share or wait in line.

That’s the same reason I appreciate many of the budget-range Windows notebooks. These chunky, plastic things weren’t designed to draw oohs and ahhhs when rotating under a spotlight on a mirrored pedestal. They’re $400 and $500 notebooks that are designed to allow more people to join the party.

The most impressive innovations in consumer technology come in two different forms. A company can either make something that’s never been made before...or they can make something accessible to people who’ve never had it before. Do either one of these things, and you’ve earned my admiration.

To rip off a meme from “The Social Network”: A million people using the best gadgets ever made isn’t really cool. You want to know what’s really cool? A billion people who have adequate access to the benefits of technology.

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