Apple’s iPad mini: Competing against yourself

Article By : Brian Dipert

Competing against yourself is challenging. Sure, you want to kill off competitors' offerings, but for profit, revenue, and other reasons, you don't necessarily want to hobble any aspect of your own product portfolio in the process.

Google's Pixelbook isn't the only "alternative to the Windows-plus-MacOS hegemony" (to quote a recent blog post) that I'm currently test-driving. As historical background, I've had my Apple iPad 3 since October 2012 (and it was bought already used off Ebay at the time), only the second iPad I've ever owned (after the first-generation unit I acquired in 2010). The Retina resolution display was a nice upgrade from the initial iPad experiment, but over time the ongoing O/S and application upgrades rendered it increasingly sloth-like in "performance." It won't even run the newest iOS revisions; it was deprecated after the release of v9.3.5. And because it's (untethered) jailbroken, it's stuck on an even older operating system version, iOS v8.4.

For these reasons, it's largely been relegated to long-term dust collection (i.e. storage) under my desk; an Android-based Google Nexus 7 FHD has until recently been its day-to-day successor. But that particular tablet platform's getting long in the tooth, too. It's stuck on Android 6 (and even that took some work), whereas the latest Android 9 was just released. Even more of an issue is the system's current battery life (or, more accurately, lack thereof). Repeated recharges have taken their toll on the lithium-polymer battery's electron storage capacity; it won't last even 24 hours off its charger any more. And although iFixit claims that replacement is "moderate" in difficulty, I'm reluctant.

I like the Nexus 7 FHD's smaller tablet form factor, though, so I decided to stick with those dimensions in conjunction with a revisit of iOS when searching for a successor. Happily, I found a posted-as-used (but never-opened, far from actually used) 32GB iPad mini 2 with LTE cellular data support (just like the iPad 3 it was replacing) on Ebay. Versus the latest iPad mini 4, it's running a one-generation older SoC (Apple A7 vs A8), but both units have Retina displays. And suffice it to say that the iPad mini 2 was by far the more fiscally appealing of the two options.

It's been interesting using the iPad mini 2 to explore the latest-and-greatest iOS features that were previously unavailable to me, and more generally to consider it as a surrogate for a conventional computer. The SoC downgrade means that not all iOS 11 multitasking options are available to me, and realistically the small screen makes the multitasking feature somewhat impractical in real-life usage, anyway. The iPad mini 2 also doesn't offer stylus ("Apple Pencil," to be precise) input support, as do its larger siblings. But I bought a Zagg Slim Book in order to equip it with a proper physical keyboard. Microsoft embraces it with an impressively robust-featured version of the Office suite. Adobe similarly offers both Photoshop Express and Photoshop Lightroom for doing image editing on it. A comprehensive set of social media apps is also available. And for music and video editing, respectively, there are Apple's own GarageBand and iMovie (among others).

But there's one thing missing, and for me it's a deal-breaker. iOS doesn't support either mice or trackpads, either wired or wireless. This isn't, I know, a fundamental operating system limitation; Bluetooth mouse and trackpad support has been available for jailbroken iPhones and iPads for years now. And USB hardware adapters for both legacy 30-pin dock connector-based units and newer Lightning-based systems also exist, the latter even from Apple itself.

So what's the hold-up? I'd argue it's a conscious non-support decision on Apple's part, to avoid cannibalizing its MacBook laptop business. Ironically, of course, this is contrary to Apple's own marketing messaging; the company even runs ads that pitch the idea:

But at the end of the day, although Apple would love to use iPads (especially really expensive iPad Pros, versus my thrifty iPad mini) to wean folks off competitors' Windows-based laptops, they probably assume that those same folks will end up discovering the shortcomings of their decisions … and since they're now fully invested in the Apple ecosystem, they'll go out and buy a Mac, too.

Competing against yourself is challenging. I'm not talking about prematurely announcing a successor offering before you're ready to actually start selling it, thereby killing sales of the existing product (for those of you not already familiar with the story, I'd encourage you to read up on the historical background to the term "Osborne Effect," no matter that some claim it's a myth). I'm talking about concurrently selling multiple product lines (and products within each line) that are distinct from a pricing standpoint but more-or-less overlapping from a feature standpoint. Sure, you want to kill off competitors' offerings in those same product lines, but for profit, revenue, and other reasons, you don't necessarily want to hobble any aspect of your own product portfolio in the process.

How well (or not) is Apple handling this situation, in your estimation? And how can you apply lessons learned here to your own company's products? Sound off in the comments.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company's online newsletter.

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