Quiet launch doesn't mean iPad Mini won't be huge

Apple held another underwhelming iPad launch Tuesday, this time releasing the second generation of the Mini with Apple’s high-definition screen, known as Retina display. The subdued product release — which comes a little more than a week after the iPad Air hit stores — marks a stark contrast to the signature Apple launch events, which are always accompanied by long lines, gaggles of press and a party-like atmosphere.

Instead, the Mini 2 suddenly appeared on Apple’s online stores, taking many customers by surprise — partly because Apple hadn’t announced a release date, as it did with the Air, and partly because it was a Tuesday morning, versus the normal Friday schedule. But the turnout last year for the first-generation Mini, when the date was announced to the public and Apple stores held put up grand displays of the new tablet, was also unusually quiet.

But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t loving the pocket book-sized, three-quarter-pound tablet.

At first glance, Apple’s understated Mini launches might suggest consumers are growing weary of the Cupertino company’s frequent and hyped product upgrades, which have, possibly since the second-generation iPad, failed to impress many fanboys and girls. Another explanation is that Apple suppliers were struggling to produce enough of the smaller Retina display tablets to meet the expected demand.

The Mercury News reported Tuesday that Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president, ”seemed to hint at supply issues in Tuesday’s news release, saying, ‘We’re working hard to get as many as we can in the hands of our customers.’”

But reports from some research firms show that, despite the lack of an epic launch for two years running, the Mini has become the more popular tablet choice for consumers.

According to research firm NPD Group, the iPad Mini is expected to account for half of Apple’s total iPad shipments this year — about 50 million. The 7.9-inch device has started to overtake sales of its full-size counterparts.

“Right now, consumers aren’t in that large-size tablet mindset.  In fact, year-to-date sales of tablets 9 inches and above are down 36 percent and total sales volume has been eclipsed by their smaller siblings,” wrote Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for the NPD Group.

Baker added that while iPad Air is the “coolest iPad yet,” its future — and the entire 9-inch tablet market — is uncertain, while “the under 9 inch market continues to explode.”

At the iPad Air launch earlier this month, many Apple shoppers said they were looking forward to a Mini with Retina display, suggesting the new device will be immediately popular.  Since most iPhones have the sharper display, consumers have come to expect the same on their tablets. The Mini also separates Apple from its competitors, including Samsung, Asus, Lenovo and Acer, which are all eating away at the full-size tablet market.

The lower price of the Mini — while still not cheap — also helps, particularly during the holiday season, when retail analysts say shoppers will want to buy tablets as gifts but not shell out the equivalent of a cross-country plane ticket. The new Mini starts at $399, a $70 price bump from the first generation. But it’s still cheaper than the new iPad Air, which starts at $500, and fourth-generation iPads are selling for more than that on eBay.

The second-generation Mini was unveiled at an event last month in San Francisco, along with the iPad Air, Apple’s fastest and lightest tablet. A Deutsche Bank research report says that global demand remains strong for the Air, and supply is plentiful — much more so than the Mini — except stores are running out of the highest-capacity 128 GB version. Apple did not release iPad Air sales for the launch weekend, although AT&T reported that iPad activations on the wireless carrier increased more than 200%  that weekend compared to last year’s iPad launch.

Image from Apple.com

Heather Somerville Heather Somerville (188 Posts)

Heather Somerville reports on consumer affairs, retail and technology for the Bay Area News Group. She lives in San Francisco, where she enjoys rock climbing, yoga and biking across the Golden Gate Bridge.