7-inch tablets yield new markets and some new fragmentation hassles

Peggy AlbrightThis is shaping up to be the season of the 7-inch tablet. The device category has suddenly become popular, and multiple products are beginning to hit the market, introducing new outlets for tablet applications. Developers should be excited about the new opportunities these smaller tablets offer, but they'll need to adapt their apps accordingly, which could create hassles for some.

The 7-inch tablet category, until now, has been considered a secondary segment in a market that has been dominated by the 10-inch Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad. As such, many developers have focused their tablet efforts on this larger and more popular device. The 7-inch options have included the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet, which were both Android-based and designed for media consumption. These were complemented in the 7-inch category primarily by the more capable Android-based Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Research In Motion  (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry PlayBook.

The 7-inch category began gathering cachet in the market this year, however, as vendors began offering smaller, lower-cost tablets with cutting-edge software to create mainstream demand for this category and expand the tablet market. This new wave of products has been led by Samsung's release of the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2, which came to market in the spring preloaded with Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has just begun shipping the 7-inch Galaxy Nexus 7, which runs Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean).

The Nexus 7--considered by many to be must-have product in the small tablet category--has received good reviews and is increasing interest in 7-inch tablets. The category will get another major boost later this year when Apple is expected to release a 7-inch iPad, referred to as the iPad "mini." And Amazon, preparing for more competition in this segment, is believed to be bolstering its Kindle Fire lineup with at least three more 7-inch models, presumably to offer more features and appeal to a broader variety of consumer segments.

It's too early to tell if the 7-inch category will lead to new consumer use-cases, types of content or styles of applications. Certainly, developers who come up with new apps that influence how and where consumers use these devices could help influence the category's evolution. What's perhaps more important, however, is the category's expected appeal to the segment of users who want a cheaper, more portable tablet.  

"The 7-inch tablet is a whole new market and an exciting one. Developers will want to take advantage of this," Eric Shapiro, cofounder and CTO of the app development house ArcTouch told FierceDeveloper.

Shapiro said that adapting existing tablet applications for 7-inch devices should not present any issues for Android developers. The Android market is already populated by devices of all sizes and shapes, and developers who work with that OS are accustomed to using tools available with the Android SDK to adapt their apps. 

But iOS developers could face some adaptation issues depending on two characteristics that, for now, are unknown about the 7-inch iPad: its screen resolution and its aspect ratio, which governs the screen's width-to-height proportions.

Right now, Apple is using three different screen resolutions: one for the iPhone, another for the iPad 2, and a third, the Retina display it introduced with the new iPad. Developers won't know until the 7-inch tablet is announced which screen resolution to use when tailoring apps to this device.

The aspect ratio for a 7-inch iPad will be even more important and perhaps more complicated. Because this expected device is between the iPhone and regular iPad in shape and size, it's conceivable that Apple could adopt the 3:2 aspect ratio used for the iPhone or the 4:3 aspect ratio used with the iPad.

Developers will be able to employ tools, available with the iOS SDK, to adjust the visual elements in their current iPhone or iPad apps to fit the new tablet's aspect ratio, but some features adapt more easily than others. So they will need to pay careful attention to this step. Also, developers who don't use standard iOS elements and tend to customize the user experience for their apps may have more design decisions to make.

Logically, it would seem that Apple would adopt the 4:3 aspect ratio used with the existing iPad. But then again, it could do something surprising and adopt the 16:9 aspect ratio that is intended for widescreen viewing of videos and TV content, which would be ideal for these 7-inch tablets. The 16:9 aspect ratio already has been adopted by the Google's Nexus 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire.

As Shapiro put it, the 7-inch iPad aspect ratio could open up "a new can of worms" for developers.

The developer community won't know for a few more months what to expect with this device, the new Kindle Fire tablets or any other forthcoming products. So while all of these new choices give developers more outlets for their work, developers must wait until they have all of the various device specifications in hand before they can fully determine how to proceed.--Peggy