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The Importance of the 7in Tablet

By now, I am sure you have read a number of reports which claim that Apple is planning a 7in tablet (or indeed a 7.85in tablet, according to the rumour mill) for the near future. I don't know if this is true or not, but it turns out that 7in tablets are becoming a rather important product in the slate market.

Until Amazon brought out the Kindle Fire in the US, a lot of industry folks seriously questioned the value of the 7in tablet. Perhaps most notably Steve Jobs, who dissed the idea at an AllThingsD conference I attended a few years back. I never took his disapproval of this 7in category too seriously, though, because I was with him when he said he would not release a smartphone, but as you know, two years later he did exactly that.

What has become clear, thanks to the Kindle Fire, is that there is now a real demand for 7in tablets as media consumption devices – an important distinction for models of this size. The iPad has proven that even though Apple initially positioned it as a media consumption device, the company hedged its bets that it could cross over to a productivity tool by introducing Pages and Numbers for the device upon launch.

By the time Apple introduced the iPad 2, the Cupertino outfit started to highlight the tablet’s role in productivity, and began to talk about how corporations were using it in their day to day business. The iPad has now proven itself to be quite versatile in handling both media consumption and productivity rather deftly.

When it comes to media consumption, though, the 7in tablets are even better suited. They are smaller and lighter, but more than capable when it comes to viewing mobile movies, listening to music, and even reading magazines. What's more important is that early studies are revealing that Generation X and Generation Y users are more than comfortable using this smaller screen tablet, while older generations covet the larger versions.

In fact, some of the major publishing houses are excited about the 7in models because they see it as dramatically expanding market demand for eBooks and digital magazines. Although I find reading magazines on the iPad to be a more enjoyable experience since there is less scrolling involved, a 7in tablet still does a decent job and, of course, it’s an ideal size for an eBook reader.

All the news around this makes me think there is some truth behind at least the idea of an iPad Mini, leaving an interesting question on the table for Apple. I have to believe that if it comes to market, it will be more like a larger iPod, assuming its goal is more media consumption-focused. So, Apple, should it have the iPod touch or iPad moniker? Given its competition is calling the 7in models "tablets," it would be hard for Apple not to call it an iPad. At the same time, it needs to make a major distinction between the focus and use of the products, besides price. It will be interesting to see how it names this still-theoretical product.

It is now clear, however, that there is real demand for 7in tablets and that will not wane. Although growth of the compact tablet market is flat at the moment, new products in this category from Google and Amazon will make them the hot tickets this Christmas. Can you imagine what a scramble it would be if Apple got into this space too? The close of 2012 could bring with it one of the hottest tech sales frenzies we have ever witnessed.

One other question worth pondering is how tablets of either size will affect demand for notebooks. I have seen a couple of studies that suggest that slates will decrease laptop sales by as much as 20 per cent come the end of this year. Microsoft's Surface tablet with its built-in keyboard blurs this area even more, but it is important to remember that people use technology to handle specific needs. A 7in tablet is really too small for any serious productivity usage, while the iPad with a keyboard does quite a good job, up to a point, with productivity apps.

I find that when it comes to heavy lifting tasks such as editing large documents or spreadsheets, even the iPad falls short in functionality. This gives me much more hope that the new breed of ultrabooks will strike a chord with people, and that they will also be big sellers this Christmas.

The bottom line is that demand for tech products will be on a very strong upswing by the end of the year, and these new 7in tablets will make up a lot of the volume. I also expect continued demand for Apple's original iPads. Ultrabooks should also be hot items for various end-of-year markets. Gartner has revised its numbers for 2012 and now suggests that the PC market will be up three per cent this year, but that excludes tablets. Add them to the mix and we actually could have a rather healthy 2012, and potentially one of our strongest tech years in a long time.