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iPad Mini and Surface nearing very exciting debuts

Updated: October 17, 2012 4:44PM

I’d anticipated that 2012 was going to be an unusually interesting year for consumer technology. It felt as though a number of plans that had been visibly simmering for the past few years were nearly ready to serve up, and that a number of companies were ready to convert Great Potential into Great Products.

Boy, was I right. And the year is ending with a hell of a bang. It looks like Apple will introduce an iPad Mini this month after all ... and Microsoft’s first Surface tablet will arrive right behind it.

Yeah, I know: a couple of weeks ago I professed uncertainty that Apple would be doing anything this month. I cited the absence of certain precursors that I associate with an imminent Apple event. Well, most of those signals have tumbled out since I wrote that piece.

Now it’s time to get in our last blind comments and speculation about the iPad Mini, before Apple ruins all of our fun and actually shows us what they’ve built.

The screen size seems definite: one half the size of the existing iPad. What sort of apps will it run? Why, iPad apps, of course. Apple has done nothing to tip off the developer corps that a new device with oddball screen dimensions is coming, and that points to “all existing apps will run just fine.”

But I don’t believe that’s the end of the story. I think the larger plan is for developers to write apps that target the iPad Mini’s smaller screen specifically. I’m keen to see how the iPad UI will translate to a smaller screen.

Early in the iPad Mini rumor cycle, some of my brother pundits suggested a test to get a feel for the size of a half-size iPad. Take a screenshot of an iPad app; view it in the Photos app; rotate the screen 90 degrees; presto...the iPad scales the screen down to fit the smaller landscape orientation. It gives you a good idea of what an iPad Mini app will look like.

I took that test one step further: I took a screenshot of that smaller screen, and then I opened the image in an art app. I selected a small brush, and then tried to tap all of the small screenshot’s buttons and other UI elements.

The result was a Pollack-style image showing some fairly drunken button hits and misses. Hitting the smaller targets wasn’t as tough as I imagined, but the test still underscored the advantages of building the right UI for the right screen size. After the Nexus 7 tablet arrived, I repeated the test on a size-suitable device, and had much the same results.

(Worth noting: there’s more to interactivity than just hitting targets. It’s a casual test at best.)

There’s another reason why I reckon Apple will want developers to target the iPad Mini directly: the size of the buttons on current iPad apps was chosen after plenty of obsessive thought and experimentation. I think if Apple believed that smaller buttons work fine on an iPad, then the iPad would have had smaller onscreen buttons to begin with.

I don’t think there’ll be many surprises from the iPad Mini. I’m expecting something akin to a larger iPod Touch. The chief focus of my curiosity will be the price. If Apple can price a 7.85-inch iOS tablet for $199, then it’s goodnight and farewell to the Android mini tablet market. The Nexus 7 is lovely, truth be told. But tablet makers have had three years to come up with even a mediocre reason why anybody would buy a $499 10” Android tablet instead of a $499 10” iPad.

If they couldn’t make that argument for full-sized Android tablets, there’s no reason to believe they’ll solve it for 7” tablets. Not after Apple enters the market.

If the iPad Mini starts at $249, then those small Android tablets are in there with a chance. And if Apple sets the price at $299...good Lord. I’ve had long conversations with consumers about smaller tablets and I have a hard time imagining Apple doing something so different with the iPad Mini that ordinary consumers would think it worth a whopping 50 percent markup over the price of competing mini tablets.

ASUS, Google’s hardware partner on the Nexus 7, famously admitted that Google is selling their tablet almost at cost. Food for thought. Will Apple maintain their traditional heavy profit margins by charging a premium price? Or will they find a way to build the same kind of tablet for far less money?

I don’t think the presence of the iPad Mini will affect Amazon overmuch. Amazon was wise to position the Kindles as content devices. They don’t appear to be in competition with the iPad.

(Look: whose opinion re: the Kindle Fire’s target market are you going to believe: mine, or Jeff Bezos’?)

And the specs on the Mini have yet to be determined. Is it inconceivable that Apple might screw this up? Mmm...kind of, yes. Apple knows what the competition is. They know they can’t ship a 7.85-inch tablet that is clumsy to hold and only lasts five hours on battery.

As it is, they might find the consumers’ desires hard to lock down. Do people really want a 7-inch tablet? Or are they spending $199 for a great book reader? If that’s the case, than iOS’ “post-PC computer” aesthetic might actually send those people to the Fire or even the Kindle Paperwhite.

Any kind of less-expensive iPad will be a huge win for Apple, however. Particularly for education and the textbook market. That market has historically and philosophically been precisely inside Apple’s wheelhouse: it’s a chance to move millions of computers, and an opportunity to help improve and modernize education. Apple’s passionate about both of those goals.

And then there’s Surface. That’s the name for Microsoft’s house-brand tablets. The multitouch devices were announced months ago but (oh, the irony) none of the media invited to the corporate event was allowed to touch them.

Microsoft’s tablet strategy is almost the exact opposite of Apple’s. Apple has two completely separate operating systems for desktop and multitouch use. Microsoft has just one: Windows. In addition to the classic multiwindowed Windows interface, the latest edition of Windows also includes a supremely elegant one-window multitouch app environment. Apps written for this one-window environment (once called “Metro,” now not) can run on any Windows 8 desktop, laptop, or tablet. Affordable, iPad-like devices that are so heavily optimized for mobile multitouch that they can’t run traditional Windows 8 apps can run these same Metro-style apps as-is.

I’ve long been a fan of this interface. I’ve been using it on a desktop-grade Windows tablet all summer. Most of that time, I’ve actually preferred the Metro environment to the classic Windows setup.

But! This is a $1,400 Samsung tablet. The real meat of this idea was always going to be the iPad-style Windows tablets, running a version of Windows 8 that Microsoft calls “Windows RT.”

Well, on the same day that Apple sent out invitations to their mysterious event, Microsoft activated a pre-order for the first Surface tablets, running Windows RT. The starting price: just $499. That’s the same as a third-generation IPad...and this Surface tablet has a larger display and twice as much storage. These first Surface tablets will ship at the end of this month.

Things just got verrrrrrrry interesting!

Wait, am I a hypocrite? Why do I consider this Surface tablet to be genuinely intriguing, when I was so quick to dismiss $499 Android tablets? Because Microsoft Surface represents an approach to tablet computing that’s distinct from Apple’s. Surface can give you identical apps that run on all classes of Windows 8 and RT devices in your home and office.

And! Microsoft Office will be baked right into Windows RT. Given that so many Windows users see their laptops and even Windows as just a support system for Office, the presence of Office on these devices isn’t a trivial feature. It might even be a significant enough feature to buy Microsoft enough time to build up a real third party app library for Surface tablets.

There’s a second wrinkle: Microsoft appears to have no kind of dogmatic opposition to using keyboards and trackpads with tablets. The iPad works great with any Bluetooth keyboard. But even Apple’s own word processor doesn’t include any keyboard shortcuts for italicizing or bolding text. And if you use a combination of arrow keys to select a couple of sentences in a paragraph, the iPad automatically extends the selection to include the whole paragraph, as though you were still selecting a range with your fingertip.

Whereas a Microsoft has developed a super-thin keyboard cover with an integrated trackpad and function keys, to be released on the same day as Surface. There’s an argument to be made that if a tablet is allowed to work as intimately with a keyboard as a notebook, then developers won’t bother building apps that are uniquely Tablet.

Another argument: this is what people are used to, and it’s what people want.

I haven’t so much as brushed my fingers on an actual Surface tablet yet. It’s possible that the whole thing utterly and devastatingly stinks.

What if it doesn’t, though? Then the iPad might have its first credible competition. Some consumers might consider it downright alluring: a thin, ultra-modern tablet for the price of a cheap Windows notebook, which (like a notebook) lets them run the same apps on every device they use.

Microsoft will have to contend with the mighty, mighty iPad app library, of course. If the company manages to build a strong library of apps for this Windows RT tablet in less than a year, it’ll be an impressive — and a surprising — achievement.

Longterm? It’s tough to calculate the odds in this matchup. Much depends on how quickly Microsoft can get Windows users to upgrade to Windows 8. The iPad has a three year headstart on developing apps. But the installed userbase of Windows is still so massive, and Microsoft Office is such a fundamental part of the weather system for this planet, that a huge app library might not be strictly necessary. So long as Windows RT has versions of the 100 most important iPad apps, consumers might think “I’ll just get the tablet that’s most compatible with my desktop OS.”

Where will I be next week, during Apple’s big event? I already have my air tickets for North Dakota, of course.

I have a prior commitment, see. But I shall be eyeing the liveblogs closely and eagerly.

A new mini iPad that brings the full flower of a robust app ecosystem to tens of millions of new users who might not have been able to afford the earlier models. And a new tablet-style Windows PC that costs the same as an iPad and delivers an endorphically-great user experience...but does it in a way that’s completely different.

Either one of these devices might not turn out to be as great as anybody is hoping. But I’m getting something that I’ve wanted ever since the end of the first year of the first iPad: diversity and competition.

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