Technologizer

7″ Tablets: Steve Jobs is Wrong! And Right!

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For this week’s Technologizer column over at TIME.com, I spent time with Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab tablet, which starts hitting US wireless carriers this week. As I say over there, it’s not an iPad killer, but it is the first post-iPad tablet from a major company that qualifies as a true iPad competitor.

The most obvious difference between the Tab and the iPad is really, really obvious: The Tab has a 7″ display versus the 9.7″ on the iPad, making it feel less like a digital magazine and more like a mass-market paperback. As I used the Tab, I thought about Steve Jobs’ recent rant about why 7″ tablets are a terrible idea, period. He said the 7″ models were tweeners, too small to compete with the iPad and too big to compete with smartphones. He said they’d be dead on arrival. Most memorably, he said they should come with sandpaper, since owners would need to sand their fingertips down to use them.

Well, the Galaxy Tab I’ve been bopping around with didn’t come with sandpaper, and I haven’t had any trouble tapping my way around the interface. Its small size makes it more portable than an iPad; I’ve taken it with me in instances when I might have left an iPad at home. It’s one of the things I like about the Tab.

Don’t get me wrong: The iPad is easily the better product overall, mostly because its interface is vastly more polished and well-optimized for tablet use, and the integration of hardware, software, and services is far more seamless. And there are things that work well at 9.7″ that wouldn’t at 7″, just as some dead-tree books demand larger page sizes than others. But exposure to a 7″ tablet leaves me thinking it’s a legitimate size.

And yet…Jobs’ tirade was clearly in part a response to rumors about a 7″ iPad. And as I used the Galaxy Tab and thought about what a 7″ iPad might be like, it was obvious that simply shrinking the current iPad experience down wouldn’t work at all. Making the iPad buttons smaller would make them harder to tap. More important, a lot of popular third-party iPad apps are all about text. All those magazine and newspaper apps would be impossible to read if they were suddenly shrunk to 45 percent of their current size.

It is, of course, possible to design operating systems and apps with interfaces that scale up and scale down–that’s why OS X is pleasing on both an 11.6″ MacBook and a 27″ iMac. But iOS is not such an OS: It’s available in a form optimized for a 3.5″ iPhone/iPod Touch display and another one optimized for a 9.7″ iPad display. That’s it for now. And those may be the only two iOS sizes until Apple rejiggers the OS further to make it work really well on another form factor.

As for Jobs’ confidence that 7″ tablets will be DOA, history has proven a gazillion times that it’s way safer to bet with Steve Jobs than against him. But with the Nookcolor and BlackBerry Playbook and other 7″ devices on the way, the industry will at least have plenty of chances to prove Jobs wrong in this instance. And it’ll be interesting to see if tablets closer in size to the iPad’s 9.7″ do any better as a class than the little guys.

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