Commentary

Shrink It And They Will Come: iPad Still Has Some Dazzle Left

Just when it looked as if the tablet category was about to commoditize, Apple pulls a small rabbit out of its hat with the iPad Air. When all else fails in gadget marketing, shrink it.

The thinner and lighter iPad Air has been widely praised elsewhere, so I won’t rehash the obvious. But let me add a few things of special relevance to marketers and media providers.

Size matters on a number of levels. First, reducing the bezel and thickness of the iPad not only makes it more manageable generally, but it makes all interactions that much easier. From thumb typing on the pop-up keyboard to tapping interface corners that require repositioning of the screen, I found just about everything more fluid to operate. You can hold this thing aloft much longer in all of the usual lounging positions.

In fact, the Air now has the kind of easy handling I learned to enjoy on the Kindle and Nexus 7. And I have to imagine this was one of the chief goals for Apple. The huge appeal of the Mini cut into the company’s iPad margins. By making a larger-screen tablet with the handling and tactile appeal of the Mini (and at only $100 more), Apple will likely retrieve or retain more people who might have gone for the Mini.

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In the larger sense, the new Air profile does for the larger tablet what the Mac Air did for laptops. Bringing the hardware along is now a no-brainer. As I mentioned in yesterday’s MoBlog, the combination of greater portability and more flexibility and speed in LTE networks could help move tablets out of the home. Knowing that my carrier planned to roll our $5 data day passes for iPads (AT&T) was a major factor in my deciding for the first time to spring for a tablet with cellular built in.

I also think the thinness of the Air, the Mini and some of the 7-inch Android tablets brings us closer to a kind of invisibility of tablet hardware that could invite wider and different public use. When rumors of the iPad first emerged years ago, some design futurists envisioned an evolution of tablets into paper-like interactive devices that people would be more likely to use as interactive windows on physical reality. This AR-style of use case may be hard to imagine now. After all, some people are still self-conscious about aiming their smartphone at a QR code in public. My wife still squirms when I do this in a store, as if she is shielding me as I pee in public. It is an open question, of course, whether we ever will hold even paper-thin or foldable tablets up to city scenes to “search” them in a new way. But consider that 15 years ago most of us would easily mistake for mentally ill a passerby speaking into thin air. Now we just know they are on the phone.

Speaking of connectivity, the Air fixes a growing problem for the platform, its WiFi performance. The addition of MIMO antennae has significantly upped the platform’s throughput and range in my weekend tests. It now approaches the speeds I get from a good laptop. This matters on a lot of levels. As much as I use the iPad as a Web browser, I have always understood its performance to be inferior to my laptop and even to recent Kindle and Nexus 7 models. That ever-so-slight hesitation I have when engaging the Web browser is less likely to happen now.

But enhanced WiFi speeds have another less obvious benefit -- the device’s interaction with other hardware. AirPlay over Apple TV has always been a nice way to view photos and some video thrown to the bigger screen. But for complex interactivity such as gaming, it always suffers from having to traverse the home WiFi morass of performance hazards. In my initial tests, the better WiFi on the Air helps but doesn’t fix this problem. Playing "Infinity Blade III" over AirPlay is better than it was using the iPad 3, but it is hard to tell whether the remaining hiccups are coming from the Apple TV or the overall network performance.

And perhaps it bears mentioning that as a gaming machine, the iPad Air is as stunning as the hardware specs suggest. The A7 CPU running an enhanced title like "Infinity Blade III" is in some ways superior to a console. It doesn’t have to rely on any disk loads. One unexpected upside of the slimmer design is that it makes gaming almost as manageable on the full-sized tablet as it is on the Mini and Nexus 7. In my mind, it actually is the 7-inch tablet that poses the greatest threat to console and handheld game consoles. The balance of screen size, portability and power has made these small tablets my gaming platform of choice.

The iPad Air is not revelatory or “game changing” as the startups like to say. It is, however, an upgrade to the full-size tablet that helps the user imagine the device playing an even greater and more flexible role in one’s digital life. It moves the ball just a bit more into the courts of other devices and extends the range of its connectivity in ways that should intrigue both marketers and media providers.      

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