Does the iPhone 6 Spell the End for the iPad Mini?

Zoolander, the 2001 male model-themed comedy starring Ben Stiller, poked fun at the mobile industry trend of making increasingly smaller sizes of phones by featuring the film’s characters using devices that were not much bigger than a thumbnail. Although the film’s mockery of the world of male modeling may still hold true today, its predictions about the size of today’s mobile devices couldn’t be further off the mark. While Apple popularized the touchscreen smartphone design with the release of the original iPhone in 2007 and the tablet with the release of the iPad in 2010, it was Samsung that merged the screen estate of the tablet with the functions of a smartphone to create the smartphone/tablet hybrid devices known as “phablets.”

Ever since Samsung introduced its line of Galaxy Note phablets in 2011, the smartphone market has increasingly trended toward larger, rather than smaller, phone sizes. According to market research firm Canalys, over one-third of the smartphones shipped in the first quarter of 2014 had displays that were five inches or larger. After years of maintaining that 3.5 inches was the ideal smartphone screen size, Apple began to gradually increase the screen size of its iPhone models, starting with the 4-inch iPhone 5 in 2012 and culminating with the release of the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus in 2014.

With smartphone screen sizes increasingly approaching the size of tablets, many industry watchers have long speculated that tablets may one day be squeezed out of the market by phablets. Now, according to the most recent rumors from Apple’s overseas supply chain, it appears that the debut of the two larger-screen iPhone models may have precipitated the end of at least one of Apple’s tablet models. According to supply chain sources cited by G4Games via Taiwan’s Economic Daily News, Apple is planning to discontinue its 7.9-inch iPad mini line.

Source: Apple.com

Source: Apple.com

According to Economic Daily News’ sources, Apple decided to discontinue the iPad mini line based on declining sales, the release of two larger-screen iPhone models, and the rumored development of a 12-inch-plus tablet tentatively known as the “iPad Pro.” Rumors about the iPad Pro have pegged its size at anywhere from 12.2 inches to 12.9 inches and Japanese tech blog Mac Otakara recently predicted that the device would be released sometime during the third quarter of 2015.

Of course, since the rumor about the end of the iPad mini came from unnamed supply chain sources, the claim should be taken with a large grain of salt. However, there are several reasons to believe that this rumor might be true. Since the iPad mini is closest in size to the iPhone 6 Plus, it is reasonable to assume that any cannibalization that occurs would most likely affect the sales of Apple’s smaller iPad model. Apple CEO Tim Cook even discussed the cannibalization of the iPad line during the company’s recent fiscal fourth-quarter earnings call.

“There are obvious cannibalization; things that are occurring. I’m sure that some people looked at the Mac and iPad and decided on a Mac,” said Cook according to a transcript provided by Seeking Alpha. “I am sure that some people will look at an iPad and an iPhone and decide just to get an iPhone and I’m fine with that as well.”

Assuming that iPad mini sales have been hit the hardest by the overall downturn in the tablet market, it would make sense for Apple to shift its resources to new projects, like the rumored enterprise-focused iPad Pro. The iPad Pro may offer Apple a new avenue for growth in the tablet market since it is supposedly targeted at the relatively untapped enterprise tablet market and will feature new business apps developed in partnership with IBM.

Finally, it should be noted that Apple has a history of skimping on updates for products that are on the way out. While Apple still sells the iPod touch, the device has not seen a major update since 2012, as more consumers have adopted the iPhone as their primary media device player. Although the recently released iPad mini 3 was outfitted with a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, researchers at repair firm iFixit found no other major hardware updates. The lack of major changes in the last iPad mini iteration also suggests that Apple may be planning to phase out its line of smaller tablets.

While it’s always interesting to speculate about Apple’s product plans, the notoriously secretive company is unlikely to tip its hand before the next scheduled product refresh cycle. This means that Apple users may not know what the fate of the iPad mini is until the fall of 2015, when the company typically unveils its latest iPad models.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

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