Back in October, Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the unusual step of participating in his company's earnings call. Competing tablets had no chance against the iPad, he told the assembled media and analysts, particularly tablets with a 7-inch form factor.
"Almost all [competing devices] use 7-inch screens as opposed to the iPad's almost 10-inch screen." He added that, if you compare the diagonal lengths of a 7-inch and 10-inch screen, the former is "only 45 percent as large."
At that time, the iPad's chief competitors included the then-newly announced Samsung Galaxy Tab, along with the upcoming PlayBook from Research In Motion-both with 7-inch screens, and both seemingly more than capable of attracting consumer and business customers. Soon afterward, Dell announced its 7-inch Streak. It seemed like Apple's rivals were intent on proving Jobs wrong.
But, now, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way. Several upcoming devices, including Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad, the Motorola Xoom and Samsung's next-generation Galaxy Tab, all seem determined to take the screen-size fight directly to the iPad. Samsung's tablet and the Motorola Xoom both feature a 10.1-inch screen, while the TouchPad measures 9.7 inches. Toshiba's tablet device, currently in the works, will boast similar screen dimensions. HTC's announcement at this week's Mobile World Congress of its 7-inch Flyer tablet, running a hybridized Android 2.4, suddenly seems more like the exception than the rule.
And for all the rumors swirling around the next-generation iPad, nobody seems to be suggesting its screen will be any smaller than the first generation's 9.7 inches.
During that long-ago earnings call, Jobs said the "painful lesson" for Apple's competitors would come when they realized that their "tablets are too small and increase the size next year, abandoning developers and customers who [had ]jumped on the 7-inch bandwagon."
Is that prediction playing out in the marketplace? Are Apple's rivals, with no device proving a breakout hit on the iPad's scale, merely experimenting with different form factors? Or are they feeling confident enough in their hardware and software to directly take on the iPad?
Tablets in the space boast other competitive differentiators from the iPad. For one thing, they support Adobe Flash, which Apple's mobile products do not. Many devices also offer front- and rear-facing cameras, for videoconferencing, although that feature may appear in the next version of the iPad. The Google Android-based tablets, at least in theory, will soon upgrade to Android 3.0 ("Honeycomb"), optimized for larger screens. Hewlett-Packard's webOS, inherited during last year's acquisition of Palm, has likewise been adapted for running tablet-size applications and games.
Despite the consolidation of certain hardware features across various companies' models (i.e., front- and rear-facing cameras, and, increasingly, dual-core processors), and an upgrading of software platforms to a tablet-ready state, the variation in tablet screen sizes suggests that many of these companies are still trying to figure out what works best for them. The answer to that question-and whether the Samsungs of the world will abandon their 7-inch models entirely-will probably be some time in coming.