Apple in miniature

This week Apple faces two significant tablet challengers. The first is Microsoft, which is releasing its long-awaited Surface tablet on Friday. The second is… itself.

Yesterday, amidst the anticipation for the Surface and strong sales for the Kindle Fire, Apple announced a slew of new devices, the $329 iPad Mini the most intriguing among them.

The mobile era has been defined by Apple: iPod, iPhone, iPad, you know the drill. Apple ascended largely unchallenged, facing only a few stunned and weak rivals. By the time it got to tablets in 2010, Apple benefited from an unspeakably large pent-up demand for a device nobody had been clamoring for. Since then it’s sold more than 100 million iPads.

The market has matured in only two years. As Apple got wealthier, the competition got wiser. Unable to counter Apple in the larger tablet space, it started to produce smaller tablets that didn’t compromise on functionality (though, admittedly, they did on apps), some undercutting Apple’s price by 60 percent.

With that success proven — Amazon claims 22 percent for the Fire HD alone — Apple’s competitors started to move in on Apple’s territory — larger tablets. Amazon released the first Fire version 13 months ago, and now comes Microsoft’s Surface. Pre-orders are said to be brisk, but it will take a while to gauge traction. The device is light and portable and solves the one niggling criticism many still have about the iPad: Surface includes a physical keyboard that is cleverly incorporated into the cover. So while the device is a tablet it also doubles as a very small notebook. Not a bad trick.

Amazon and the tablet market’s 7 / 10 split

Amazon is going where few have dared to tread, announcing a “full size” tablet that takes on Apple directly — and has the gall to be cheaper than the iPad. The tablet highway is littered with the remains of wannabe iPad killers from big hardware names — Motorola, Blackberry, Samsung. Even Google, whose Android software powers the Amazon tablets, didn’t bother to poke the Cupertino giant when it released its Nexus 7, choosing to make a tablet a smidge under two inches smaller than the iPad.

Amazon’s new large tablet, the 8.9-inch Fire HD, has a slightly smaller screen than the iPad’s 9.7 inches. But the entry-level price, announced today, is $300 — $200 less than the iPad equivalent, and only $100 more than the industry standard price for the new 7-inch interlopers, pioneered by Amazon.

Why bother overtly taking on Apple? Because Amazon can — and almost only Amazon can.