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How Apple made the iPad mini 23% thinner and 53% lighter

Did Apple go tweener?

When Apple first introduced the iPad in 2010, many observers questioned whether there was any room for a new device between smartphones and low end notebooks. Many in the industry, including Microsoft's chairman Bill Gates, dismissed the iPad in favor of netbooks.

Gates' reasoning was based on his opinion that users wanted a "real" keyboard, the very same complaint many observers made about the original iPhone three years earlier in 2007.

By the end of the year however, Apple's iPad sales had grown so strong that observers jumped to the opposite conclusion: that there were infinite opportunities for selling tablet-like devices in all shapes and sizes, particularly between the 3.5 inch smartphone and the 9.7 inch iPad.

In October of 2010, Steve Jobs dismissed most of these, saying that in the "avalanche" of tablets entering the market, there were "only a handful of credible entrants. They use 7 inch screens rather than iPad's near 10 inch display."

Jobs pointed out that because the screen measurements were diagonal, a a 7 inch screen offered just 45% of the screen of the iPad. "This size isn't sufficient to create great tablet apps," Jobs stated. "No tablet can compete with mobility of a smartphone. Pocket size tablets are tweeners."

Jobs also addressed a variety of other problems with these devices, including their use of the old Android 2.x (which many tablets--and about 75 percent of all Android devices currently using Google Play--continue to use today, two years later), a paucity of tablet-optimized apps, and cost cutting measures intended to match Apple.

However, the main takeaway for most observers was that Jobs had labeled pocketable tablets as too small, rather than calling 7 inch tablets "credible," but flawed to the point of being "DOA" for a variety of reasons.

What has changed since 2010

So what has changed to allow Apple to introduce an "iPad mini" into the pocket-sized tablet category? For starters, the market is now much larger. When Jobs made his comments, Apple had sold fewer than 7.5 million iPads. Today, it announced sales of over 100 million. There's also been some validation of smaller screen sizes, although none have achieved the blockbuster status of the iPad.

Secondly, Apple doubled the resolution of the iPad at the beginning of this year, allowing it to introduce an iPad mini with a new, smaller screen at the same resolution as the original iPad. Developers won't have to specifically target different screen sizes or screen ratios, so the new iPad mini will run existing iPad titles unchanged.

This could have been the case if Apple had introduced a new "tweener" resolution, larger than iPhone but smaller than iPad. Thanks to Retina Display, it didn't need to do this. Most tweener tablets have, offering more pixels than a smartphone, but not very many more. The wide variety of different resolution options on these devices further complicates the task of developers to make any special use of these extra pixels.

Thirdly, the 7.9 inch screen size and 3:4 ratio of the iPad mini gives it both more screen real estate and more useful screen area for tablet-optimized apps. Tablets with widescreen displays (like the new iPod touch, most smartphones, and most 7 inch tablets) may be better optimized for watching movies, but are less useful for document-oriented work, browsing the web, reading email, and other tasks people use iPads for: PC-like tasks suited to a page sized screen.

The result: while the industry operated under the assumption that broadly licensed mobile platforms would result in a wider range of device sizes and options from multiple hardware makers, Apple is now offering what appears to be the broadest range of popular, successful size and price options, and certainly has (at least to this point) done the best job of selling them.

Apple's iPad mini strategy looks to be patterned after the iPod mini from nearly a decade ago: after having conquered the high end, hard-drive based MP3 player market with the conventional iPod, Apple introduced a flash memory based iPod mini to take on competitors in the lower priced, but higher volume low end.

Whether the new iPad mini will work as well to keep the tablet market under Apple's control as the iPod mini (and its iPod nano replacement) did to expand Apple's iPod dominance remains to be seen.