There’s little doubt that Apple will sell millions of whatever device it unveils at its super-secretive (what is expected to be) iPad mini launch event. Early reports indicate that the company is ready to ship 10 million units over the last three months of the year, enabling Apple to max out its holiday sales and meet its Wall Street quarterly estimates. The real question, though, is whether consumers are already starting to change their opinions of Apple, as the company releases (what appears to be) yet another incremental innovation. Tech early adopters — the same people who gave Apple its early cachet — first and foremost like to feel that the companies they support are not spending their time looking in the rear-view mirror for a view of their competitors.
This was an art that Apple under Steve Jobs perfected, creating the perception that the product they were introducing was so new and so revolutionary that it was far ahead of anything that competitors may have been developing. This is what happened with the iPod, iPhone and the original iPad. In contrast, the iPad mini, if rumors are to be believed, sounds as it it will be, at best, a smaller, cheaper version of the iPad. There may be a few bells-and-whistles in terms of shape, battery life, 3G connectivity and weight, but Apple won’t be fooling any consumers: the product is essentially meant to plug a hole in Apple’s product ecosystem. At a time when, as the Post’s Hayley Tsukayama reports, Apple's market share in the tablet market has dropped from 80 percent to 68 percent, it’s clear that there’s some concern in Cupertino, especially considering the early momentum and buzz around 7-inch tablets such as the Google Nexus 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire HD. And companies such as Microsoft, which debuts its new Surface tablet this week as well, are eager to chip away at the dominance of the original iPad as well.
What’s most troubling, if you’re an Apple stockholder, anyway — is that the iPad mini, assuming its what’s next in Apple innovation, may end up confusing the very people it was intended to entice. That’s because there's no guarantee that the iPad mini will come with a 7-inch screen size. If that’s the case — if Apple goes with the rumored 7.85-inch screen size — it could be a case of comparing Apples with Android Oranges, rather than Apples with Apples. Moreover, a whole host of other variables, such as the inclusion of 3G wireless connectivity and even whether the new iPad mini uses the new Lightning Connector could make it difficult for consumers to determine (A) whether they actually need a new smaller tablet and (B) whether the new iPad mini truly represents an improvement over other 7-inch tablets already in the marketplace.
It’s a safe assumption that Apple spent a lot of time studying all the pricing and technical specifications of its newest product, and surely the folks in Cupertino are aware of how to optimize them for maximum consumer uptake. But there’s one thing they may be forgetting, assuming the iPad mini is about to be unveiled, and it has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with psychology.
Quite simply, as psychologists such as Barry Schwartz have documented, when consumers are presented with too many choices, the impact can actually dampen the purchase impulse. An example would be walking into a supermarket to buy a box of cereal and confronting a wall of different options. What once seemed to be a cut-and-dry decision (”let’s buy a box of cereal”) suddenly seems one fraught with all kinds of hidden ramifications. (”Is the new family-size box really cheaper?” “Should I buy the new low-calorie option?”) When consumers are presented with too many options, they may actually buy less, wracked with uncertainty over whether another choice might have been the better option. Or, they may stick with what they already know rather than risk a new purchase. It’s the paradox of choice: more choices are not always better.
In short, the decision of whether or not to buy an iPad mini, assuming one can in the near future, is no longer obvious. In fact, Apple is behaving more like your cable company or credit card company (a huge number of choices for every possible consumption habit) rather than the type of company that gave us a breakthrough digital device with a single button. Suddenly, Apple is requiring you, the consumer, to think a little bit more about whether or not the product is right for you. And that might just convince a few holiday shoppers to put off their purchasing decision until next year. As a result, by trying to extend its dominance into the tablet arena, Apple may risk undercutting what made the company so attractive in the first place — well-designed options that seem tailor-made for consumers, not well-designed options that seem tailor-made to head off its latest competitors.
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