How Apple could own the 7-inch tablet market, too

Apple won't lie down for Android's growth in the tablet market. A smaller $250 iPad would blow the competition away

Making bets on what Apple will do in the future is, as they used to say, a mug's game. Most predictions, like the June "iPhone 5 launch," are based on wishful thinking or sources so thin you can see through them.

I'm not playing that game. But if well-connected reporters at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal are correct, the possibility that Apple is going to launch an iPad Mini -- a smaller iPad -- in the near future merits serious consideration. If it does, it could deal a near-fatal blow to Android as a tablet platform.

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Why Apple would reverse Steve Jobs's decision to forgo small iPads
I know -- Steve Jobs always said he'd never go for scaled-down devices because they offer a lesser user experience and would muddle the brand. But he also said he'd destroy Android, which he considered an iOS knockoff. In any case, Jobs is gone now, and CEO Tim Cook can read a spreadsheet with the best of them. Simply put, Android is a threat to Apple's dominance in the tablet market, and it's worth Apple's trouble to blow it away.

Consider Gartner's April 2012 report on tablet sales. In 2011, Apple owned two-thirds of the market with 40 million sold, Android devices lagged far back at just under 29 percent (17.2 million), and there were no other notable competitors. Fast-forward to 2016: Gartner predicts that Apple's share drops to 46 percent (169.7 milion units) with Android climbing to 37 percent (137.7 million), while Microsoft, which had no share at all last year, grabs nearly 12 percent of the market (43.6 million). The report was published in April and prepared even earlier, so it could not take into account Microsoft's Surface tablet and Google's Android-based Nexus 7, devices that may well win large numbers of buyers at different ends of the market.

Yes, some of Gartner's numbers are hard to believe, such as predicting Research in Motion will sell 2.6 million BlackBerry PlayBook tablets this year and 17.8 million in 2016 -- the BlackBerry tablet has been a spectacular flop, with hundreds of thousands of units sitting in warehouses unsold and unwanted. It's not clear RIM will even be in business in 2016, as sales spiral downward. The Android sales figures are also suspect; only Motorola Mobility reports actual sales numbers, and figures for the rest of the market are guesstimates based on what stores say they ordered. Plus, after the Gartner predictions appeared, Amazon.com's Kindle Fire turned out to be a flash in the pan in terms of sales, not a new growth area for Android.

Still, it seems that some Android tablets are hitting their stride, especially those from Samsung, and there's real demand for them, even beyond the 10-inch category. Look at the passionate uptake of Samsung's 5-inch max-phone/mini-tablet Galaxy Note as an example.

What would be a realistic strategy for Apple? Unlike its historical positioning as a niche player in the computer market, Apple aims to dominate every mobile market it plays in. Tablets are a huge contributor to its margins and earnings. Cook won't give up even a point of share without a fight, and breaking Jobs' "no mini tablet" rule is a strategy that makes a ton of sense.

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