Image: Mashable composite. Getty Creative​
By Christina Warren2014-10-10 19:54:00 UTC

Apple’s annual iPad event is upon us. The company is expected to release updated versions of the iPad Air and iPad mini, both with Touch ID, faster processors and perhaps new colors.

A year ago, it looked like demand for the iPad mini was on the cusp of potentially eclipsing that of the traditional 9.7-inch iPad. The iPad Air made a strong case for large-screen tablets everywhere, but the market definitely seemed to be trending toward the 7- and 8-inch ones that Steve Jobs so abhorred.

A year later, the scenario seems to have reversed itself yet again. At the end of 2014, tablet sales in general have slowed down (though I contend that the tablet is in no way dead). At the same time, large-screened phones (“phablets,” if we must) are taking off.

On the Android side, we’ve seen very clear evidence that the large-screened smartphones have started to eat into the sales for 7-inch devices. Even 8-inch devices (the size closer to the iPad mini), are impacted when phone screens approach the 6-inch mark.

After all, a 5.5-inch phone is in many ways closer to a tablet than it is to a smartphone. In talking with hundreds of iPhone 6 Plus owners for a recent story, a common refrain I heard from many was that “the iPhone 6 is going to make me use my iPad mini less.”

Mashable‘s own Ryan Lytle said it best when he said that his iPhone 6 Plus had basically turned his iPad mini into “a glorified Kindle.”

Which begs the question: Is the iPad mini the new iPod touch?

The weird history of Apple’s iPod touch

The iPod touch was, on paper, a perfect kind of device. Released a few months after the original iPhone in the fall of 2007, the iPod touch offered all of the same web connectivity and media playback features of an iPhone, but without the cellular connectivity.

In its early years, it could be seen as a natural successor to the original iPod.

I bought my first iPod touch in 2008, a second-generation model. It had slightly better specs than the just-released iPhone 3G and worked with the brand-new App Store. As a device, it felt impossibly thin and was able to pack a punch for media and Wi-Fi-connected playback.

In that earlier era, when the iPhone was only available on one wireless carrier in the United States and data plan prices for smartphones were still a bit ridiculous, the iPod touch was the perfect product for parents to buy a child or for a BlackBerry owner in a contract (that would be me) to get to enjoy the finer parts of life.

As time went on, however, the iPhone came to quickly eclipse the iPod touch, in specs and functionality. The iPod touch was updated more slowly and with internals that didn’t match those of the iPhone. Plus, the iPhone became available on more and more carriers, and the cost of adding another smartphone to a plan became much less prohibitive.

And then, in 2010, Apple released the iPad. The iPad was criticized for being “a giant iPod touch,” but it turns out, that was something millions and millions of people wanted. Even better, you could get a cellular plan on the iPad for data only, at rates that weren’t overly prohibitive.

At this point, the iPod touch was last updated two years ago and feels and looks long in the tooth. It’s a great device to give a small child, perhaps, but then, at this point, wouldn’t they just rather have an iPad?

Even from a price perspective, the iPod touch is a weird fit in Apple’s lineup. A 32GB iPod touch is $299, the same price as a 16GB iPad mini. Moreover, the starting price for an iPod touch — which is on two-year old hardware — is $199 for 16GB. That’s the same price, or higher, than lots of good Android tablets, including Amazon’s Fire series.

I have to think Apple keeps the device around just because it isn’t losing them money, but I can’t help but think it’s a weird product that has been obsoleted by both the iPhone and the larger iPad.

Four years later, I wonder if the iPad mini is going to face that same sense of obsolescence.

Small tablet or big phone?

From a usage perspective, there isn’t a huge difference between the experience of using and iPhone 6 Plus and an iPad mini. Sure, the mini has a bigger screen and more landscape features, but the iPhone 6 Plus has the type of real estate and app support to feel like the ultimate pocketable tablet.

Moreover, because the iPhone 6 Plus can also make phone calls, it really does fit the bill for the type of user who wants a pocketable tablet but doesn’t want to carry two devices.

A few years ago, Rene Ritchie at iMore wrote an article about using the iPad mini as a phone. This is something my husband does.

Two years ago, he got an iPad mini with 4G LTE for Christmas. With iMessage, Skype and Google Hangouts, he can basically use the iPad in place of his iPhone. In fact, when still saddled with an antiquated (and broken) iPhone 4, he did just that.

Today, my husband would be the perfect customer for an iPhone 6 Plus. Sadly for him, he gets my phone hand-me-downs, so that’s not going to happen, but I feel confident that if he had a 5.5-inch phone, his 7.9-inch tablet would get very little use.

For people like myself, who enjoy a bigger tablet experience anyway, the iPhone 6 Plus hasn’t changed the game for me at all. I’d still rather consume my content or write on a 10-inch screen; so I have an iPad Air for reading and an iPhone 6 as a phone.

But contract prices notwithstanding (and they are becoming less of an issue), the price difference between an iPad mini with LTE and an iPhone 6 Plus, even unlocked, are not that different. With an iPhone, you can actually make phone calls.

Moreover, with the ever-present rumors that Apple is going to go into the larger-screened tablet game, one wonders if the industry reaction to tablets — which was wrong before — has underestimated the impact large-screened phones will have on smaller-screened tablets.

All I know is that looking at Apple’s product lineup, the iPad mini makes a lot less sense than it did a six weeks ago.

That’s not to say its market share will collapse overnight, or that it should be a discontinued product. But I can’t help but think that just as the original iPad and the advancements of the iPhone made the iPod touch less compelling, the same will be true for the iPad mini.

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