Apple’s following the pack

Patrick Stafford /

It’s the worst kept secret in Silicon Valley, but at least it’s confirmed. Apple will hold an event next week to show off something new – most likely a smaller version of the iPad.

In fact, we know this is the case from all those leaked pictures. If the mock-ups are anything like the real thing, then it’ll be a smaller and thinner version of what we already have.

This will be the first new product launch for Apple in some time, if you’re counting the smaller iPad as a whole new category. But is it really anything new?

It’s important to look at the context of this product launch, because it reveals what may be a shift in Apple’s thinking.

For years, Apple has always been first on the ball. The first Mac was the first computer to come shipped with a mouse. In the late 1990s, the iMac provided a credible alternative to the PC. The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player on the market, but it was the best.

The iPhone changed how smartphones are made, and the iPad created an entirely new category that plenty of other companies have tried to follow. In fact, they’ve copied Apple in the process.

When Apple isn’t first, it’s fast. It’s quick. The iPod wasn’t the first media player but it was the best and now, obviously, the most successful because of its high-quality manufacturing.

But the seven-inch iPad is something different. It’s a reaction to what’s already happening in the market. And remember, Steve Jobs didn’t even want to enter this category in the first place – he said in a conference call it’s not a category the company would look at entering.

Now, companies change course all the time. Smart businesses recognise a change in the wind and know when to manufacture a product or change a strategy to get in front.

But since when does Apple do that?

It’s not like Apple is getting first here. Amazon, Google and Samsung have been doing just fine with their seven-inch tablets for some time, and if Apple wasn’t going to make a seven-inch device, then these companies would be doing just fine on their own.

It’s simple: Apple is making a smaller version of the iPad because other companies did it first.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but Apple has never been a reactionary company. It’s been a proactive manufacturer of products that people don’t know they want to buy it.

Make no mistake; Apple is playing catch up here. It’ll probably still do very well, but it’s a game of catch-up nonetheless. And whether it will gather as much success with the smaller iPad as it did with the original iPad is a question that’s harder to answer, given how many players are already in the field.

The iPad Mini will be, as per usual, a very well-crafted product. But it will also be a sign that Apple responds to market trends after the fact – something it’s rarely had to do before.

Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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