Time to Admit It: A Smaller iPad Would Spell Doom for Everyone Else

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Apple CEO Tim Cook at the new iPad launch

The rumors of a mini iPad have surfaced once again, and I’m starting to believe them. Both Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal report that Apple will launch an iPad with a screen smaller than 8 inches this year, citing unnamed sources.

In the world of Apple rumors, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal represent a sort of turning point. Their stories about unreleased Apple products are usually vague on details, but the gist–that product X will be released during timeframe Y–tends to be correct, especially when both publications report the same story.

As a fan of competition and someone who generally enjoys Android–especially the latest version, Jelly Bean–I desperately want to be contrarian about this. I’ve been trying to think of ways in which a smaller iPad wouldn’t destroy Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet and Google’s upcoming Nexus 7, but so far, I’ve got nothing.

(MORE: Google’s Nexus 7 and Nexus Q: A Photo Tour of the New Hardware)

Price alone won’t be fatal. Despite what some pundits are claiming, I doubt Apple can hit $200 with a 7.8-inch iPad. The only way the competition gets that cheap is by sacrificing hardware profits in hopes of making money on digital content sales.

Apple doesn’t work that way. According to unofficial estimates, Apple makes about $150 in profit on the Wi-Fi iPad 2, which now sells for $400, and for the latest iPad, the profit margins are even greater. Content sales are just gravy. Unless I’m drastically underestimating Apple’s supply chain prowess, a smaller iPad priced at $250 or $300 seems far more likely if Apple still wants to make a profit on hardware.

But even at a higher price than other 7-inch tablets, Apple would do well against its competitors purely on the strength of its apps. No other tablet maker has cultivated an app ecosystem like Apple’s, which is why 10-inch Android tablets haven’t made a dent in the iPad’s sales—even ones that cost less than the iPad.

If Apple can pitch a smaller iPad as a less expensive device for kids, or for women to fit in their purses, or for gamers who want something easier to grip with two hands, I think it’s a winner. It would likely have all the same apps, as iOS developer Joel Bernstein points out, because even when scrunched onto a 7.8-inch screen, they’d still fit within Apple’s design guidelines.

(LIST: 30 Best Apps for Apple’s New iPad)

And it kind of makes me sad to think about it. I own an iPad, and I really like it, but I’ve also been using Google’s Nexus 7, and it’s really, really good. Android appeals to my nerdy side, with all its customizability, its lack of a walled garden and the simple fact that I can play classic video game emulators on it.

But I know most people don’t care about any of that, and even though Android is now fast and fluid enough for curb appeal, the advantages it offers over iOS still aren’t obvious to the average user. Apple is the safe bet–the platform with all the apps–for which people will happily pay an extra $50 to $100. Amazon and other tablet makers can race further to the bottom, and they probably will, but they won’t come up with better products that way—only cheaper ones.

At the moment, 7-inch screens are the only place where Apple’s competitors can start to build ecosystems of apps and media–ones that could potentially come back to haunt Apple. With its own smaller, cheaper tablet, Apple could snuff those ecosystems out.

MORE: Jelly Bean Impressions: Android’s Most Important Update Yet