The iPad Mini: Good News for Education, But “Not a Game Changer”

Well, it’s official—Apple has introduced the iPad mini, defying late founder Steve Jobs, who reportedly commented in 2010 that users would have to “sand down their fingers” to use a tablet touchscreen smaller than that of the original iPad.

Why would Apple change its mind about the need for a mid-size tablet? In a column two weeks ago, I speculated that the company might have specialty markets like education in its sights. Textbooks are a booming category in the App Store; in an effort to boost schoolroom use of tablets, Apple has already lowered the price of the iPad 2 to $399 and is giving away its iBooks Author software to publishers.

But as premium devices, the first- through fourth-generation iPads are still beyond the financial reach of a many parents and school districts. By bringing out a smaller, lighter, cheaper iPad, I reasoned, Apple might have a better shot at keeping competing Android and Windows tablets out of classrooms.

But now I’m wondering if I was off track. The iPad mini may be small and light, but it ain’t cheap.

Starting at $329 for a Wi-Fi-only, 16-gigabyte model ($459 if you want cellular data), the device is much more expensive than competing seven-inch tablets from the likes of Google, Samsung, and Amazon—and not that much cheaper than Apple’s own iPad 2, which has a full 10-inch screen.

To compete directly with the other mid-size tablets, the iPad mini probably should have debuted at at $249 or less. Instead, Apple now has so many mobile devices on offer in the $300-$400 range (the iPod touch, the iPad 2, the iPhone 5, and now the iPad mini) that it’s unclear which Apple device is supposed to appeal to which segment of the market.

To get a fix on how the education market views the iPad mini, I talked yesterday with Osman Rashid, the co-founder and CEO of Kno, the Santa Clara, CA-based digital textbook company. “Every parent who can afford $329 [for an iPad mini] can probably afford $399 [for an iPad 2],” Rashid says. “So the question becomes its light weight compared to the iPad 2.”

And other equally light tablets are out there, at far lower price points. With Google selling its 7-inch Nexus 7 tablet for just $199, the iPad mini “not a game changer,” Rashid says. “Without a doubt it moves the ball forward, but it’s not the kind of thing that will make every parent run to the Apple Store.”

Kno App IconThat said, Rashid still thinks the iPad mini is “great news,” because it means that there’s one more device that can display Kno’s textbooks. Thousands of textbooks and journals from big publishers like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are available for viewing in the company’s app, which runs on the iPad, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, Windows 7 laptops and desktops, and the Web.

“The future is really going to be about BYOD,” or Bring Your Own Device, Rashid predicts. Already common in workplaces, it’s bound to become the pattern in classrooms too, given that most school districts can’t afford both new hardware and the digital content for them. So “it’s really going to end up being half iPad, another third Windows, 10 percent Android, et cetera,” Rashid says. “We want to work in a multi-platform world and deliver a great user experience on all of them.”

Crucially, Apple limited the iPad mini’s screen resolution to 1024×768 pixels, which means Kno’s textbook app—and every other app designed for the original iPad and the iPad 2—will run without alteration on the iPad mini.

But there won’t be a tablet in every backpack until prices come down some more, Rashid predicts. “Our thesis has always been that hardware prices are going to continue to drop, to even below $150 in the next couple of years,” he says. “You can already see that Google tablets and Kindle tablets and others are below $200. For people who really want an iPad, it is now a little easier for them to get the iPad into the classroom. So we think it is a great for the industry and a good move for Apple.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

Trending on Xconomy