OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWired’s Gadget Lab takes a look at the history of 7” tablets, and why Steve Jobs has been extremely dismissive of the idea. To Jobs, a 7” tablet is too small to accomplish anything worthwhile, and many would see the form factor as little more than a smartphone that’s too big to picket, too small to do much.

But the fact that Apple is staying away from that market niche has been allowing others to exploit it without fear of competition—in particular, the Nook Color and now the Kindle Fire. They’re being marketed as media consumption devices rather than tablets—indeed, as PC Magazine points out, Amazon is very careful not to use the word “tablet” in conjunction with the Fire itself, although everybody else throws it around with abandon.

I find it interesting that nobody seems to have twigged to the fact that Apple already does have, in a sense, a Kindle Fire competitor: the iPod Touch. Allowing for the different aspect ratio of the Fire, it has (and for that matter the Nook Color and the Kobo Vox also have) almost exactly the same resolution as the current retina display iPod Touch. It’s just that it has that resolution in a 7” screen instead of a 3.5” one. So the Fire is effectively the device you’d have if you took the current iPod Touch and made it twice as tall and wide without changing the actual resolution.

The basic iPod Touch has 8 GB of internal memory just like the Fire, a few features the Fire lacks such as a camera, and costs about $30 more. It can do most of the same media playing or e-reading tricks (it can run the Netflix client, for instance, for streaming on-line video), and it has a small-screen optimized browser (though not one so advanced as Silk). Its screen is just as good, but smaller—so you might have to hold it closer to your face, but you still see just as good a picture as the Fire will give you in a device that’s a quarter the size.

If Apple ever does come out with a 7” tablet (and you never know, Jobs often pooh-poohs things before Apple turns around and comes out with them—for example, e-book stores), it’ll probably do so by blowing up the iPod Touch, not by shrinking the iPad—and the purpose of it will probably be spun the same as the iPod’s: a pure media-playing device, not meant for “real” work.


  1. Hear, hear. I totally agree.

    The only question now is price. Current iPod Touch w/camera costs more than the Fire’s retail price. Apple has been very careful over the past 12 years to stair-step the prices of their gadgets and PCs. Thus, the 7″ version of the Touch would cost somewhere in between $230 and $499 – on the order of $299 at least, given Apple’s preference for prices ending in nines.

    Would many buyers go for a 299 Touch vs the 230 plain Touch? or the 199 Fire?

    The 7″ Touch would run all the iPhone apps, but not iPad-only apps, which is an important consideration for the education market.

    In the end I expect it would come down to actual comparisons between production models. Nobody has had a true hands-on trial of the Fire as yet; it might end up a bit sluggish. Amazon is rumored to have new models at both 7″ and 10″ coming early next year, and they should be better than gen-1 Fires if those rumors are true. As for the 7″ Touch, should such a beast come to market, we should expect it to be much like the regular iPod Touch with (perhaps) somewhat different battery life.

  2. Personally I don’t buy into the ‘consuming media only’ thinking. This is what they all said about the iPad! I use an iPhone as well as an iPad. I read many ebooks on the road on my iPhone, if someone is using my iPad or it isn’t to hand. I also use it to reply to email, take tech photos, edit them and incorp them into docs on my iPhone. Of course it’s much easier and better on my iPad, which I believe is the perfect form, below the laptop.

    Commenters tend to have a black and white perception of everything. ‘The death of’, ‘iPad killer’ etc etc.

    I believe that there is, of course, a market for 7″ tablets. I am certain Jobs knows it. Everyone knows it. The question is only whether it can be developed quickly and in bulk, and how can the OS software deal with it to make it usable and useful. This is why the Fire is not a competitor for the iPad. It is an underpowered, functionally limited, user-data sucking but quite useful little device.

    In it’s user-data sucking lifetime I would never ever ever buy one. When the public learn more about this I suspect it will slow sales.

  3. I like the 7-inch form factor because I compare it to my iPhone. By that standard, the larger screen is quite nice. And since the 6-inch screen on my Kindle 3 is great, I know I’ll enjoy that added inch. On the other hand, I compare an iPad with the smaller laptops and, in that matching, it comes up lacking, mostly because it doesn’t have a keyboard.

    Why do I break down comparisons that way? It has to do with portability. A Kindle Fire doesn’t require carrying something to carry it, fitting in a coat pocket like an iPhone fits in a pants pocket. On the other hand, an iPad is like a small laptop. You must carry something to carry it. And that means hassle. Given that, next year’s MacBook Air makes more sense. More features, no additional hassle.

    It’s also because I think of devices along a portability-to-power spectrum. An iPhone rests at the portability end of the range and a desktop with a large screen at the other. I need both extremes, so the real gadget question is how to fill up the middle space efficiently. I must have a laptop for writing on the go, so that 10-inch iPad nearby isn’t appealing, especially given its price. The real issue is whether there’s enough space between a laptop and that nicely priced $200 Kindle Fire to justify a purchase.

    That’ll depend on how many Droid productivity apps migrate to it. Toss in enough of those along with Dropbox synching and I’ll be interested. That’s why I’m waiting. Amazon is either being coy or indifferent about apps. Are they waiting until it has an impressive set before making that a selling point? Or do they see the Kindle Fire as an almost exclusively buy-from-Amazon consumption device that “don’t need no apps”? I’m waiting to see.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

  4. You say “Its screen is just as good, but smaller—so you might have to hold it closer to your face…”

    My response is that it’s just not practical for me have the screen rubbing against my eyeball. And yes, that’s about how close it would have to be.

  5. Ah, the joys of tech prognostication.

    I can see Apple filling that 7″ tablet hole in their lineup when/if that fabled “retina screened” iPad 3 comes out next spring. They just need to move the current iPad resolution down to a 7″ form factor.

    I love my iPad but if they did this I could justify replacing my current iPad With a 7″ iPad and a MacBook Air next summer.

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