Many people had written off Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL ) larger iPad. After all, after several generations, the things just kept getting bulkier and more power-hungry and it's clear that for consumption devices, this isn't the right trend.
The trend toward smaller tablets is likely due to a mix of both form-factor preference and price -- remember, many whitebox tablets sold overseas don't cost more than $99. But the shift from iPad to iPad Mini must have been more than that. Can the new iPad Air reverse this trend, or will the Mini be Apple's tablet champion forevermore?
Think of the customer base
The folks buying iPads aren't likely looking for the cheapest thing around. If they were, they'd be looking at Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG ) fine Nexus devices, which offer incredible value. No, people who tend to buy Apple are usually looking for the most pleasant user experience possible. With the iPad Mini versus iPad 4 comparison, there was something weird going on: Would the customer prefer a large, fairly bulky tablet with a nicer screen and more processing power? Or would a smaller, more portable device do the trick, despite inferior internals and a low-resolution screen?
At the end of the day, users were forced to weigh a set of trade-offs and choose accordingly -- and it seemed that what made the iPad Mini unique won out over what made the iPad 4 unique. However, things start to look pretty interesting with Apple's new lineup, and it's not entirely clear which way things are going to go.
No more trade-offs -- it's just about size
With the iPad Air and iPad Mini, the customer is essentially just picking his/her preferred size. As far as everything else goes -- from screen resolution to processing power -- there is no difference between the Mini and the Air. Even from a form-factor/weight perspective, the iPad Air really just looks and feels like a scaled-up iPad Mini. While it might seem that this will shift sales back automatically to the Air, it's not clear if the improved Mini will simply drive more folks to the Mini.
The more important question: Does it matter? The difference between the iPad Air and the iPad Mini in their base 16GB configurations is $100. Interestingly enough, while the new iPad Mini's price does get bumped up $70 from the original iPad Mini at launch, it's not clear if the new Mini actually improves things on the gross margin front. The 2048x1536 display in a 7.9-inch form factor must be very difficult to build, and there are already whispers that Apple is having a tough time getting these displays to yield. Is slightly less metal in the chassis enough to make up that difference? It's not likely.
Good thing the iPad Air came out first and is quite nice
While an even broader shift toward the new iPad Mini wouldn't likely do Apple's gross margins any favors, the iPad Air is incredibly compelling according to many third-party reviewers. It seems likely that Apple will also be funneling the vast majority of its iPad marketing dollars toward the Air, particularly as it has already launched.
It's encouraging that there are already reports that iPad Air usage already exceeds iPad 4 and iPad Mini usage following their respective launches. If this trend continues -- and it isn't just a result of pent-up demand -- then this bodes quite well for the Air and its future 9.7-inch successors. Apple will, of course, still sell a bunch of Minis, and it will do so profitably, but it is likely that the company will actively shift that mix toward the Air as best as it can.
Foolish bottom line
Apple has done it again. Both the iPad Air and the iPad Mini are excellent devices. The Air fixes most, if not all, of the issues that prior generations of iPad had, and the new Mini fixes the flaws that the original Mini had. Whether Apple is ultimately able to control the mix isn't clear, but it is clear that Apple has delivered a pair of excellent products that should, in aggregate, sell quite well and be a true credit to the Apple brand.
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