Apple never wanted to make the iPad Mini. It was forced to, by an army of tiny tablets laying successful siege to its empire. The company's conceded a lot of ground to Amazon and Google already. And it's not the first time this year it's had to play catch-up.
With every new release, it becomes increasingly clear that Apple's no longer the pace car for an entire industry. Maybe that transformation from leader to follower was inevitable. But that doesn't make it any less jarring.
The iPad Mini is an obvious and bloated—both in size and price—response to last year's Kindle Fire and this summer's Nexus 7. Before it came the iPhone 5, Apple's limp concession that people actually do want bigger phone displays. And before that? Apple Maps, a full-on admission that Cupertino had badly miscalculated the importance of first-party software. iOS 6 users are footing that bill while Apple scrambles to make up the seven-year lead it gifted Google.
Compare the Apple of 2012, then, to the Apple juggernaut of 1998 to 2010. That Apple didn't react to markets. It created them. Who wanted a tablet before the iPad? Who gave smartphones a second thought before the iPhone? Those products defined technology for a decade. Even Apple's retail operation—one of its most unheralded strengths—was an unthinkable undertaking before Apple thought it. And it still doesn't have any imitators.
Even Apple's iterations during that time took giant steps forward. There were MP3 players before the iPod, but none as user-friendly or as lovingly designed. The original MacBook Air was nothing special; just a laptop as overpriced as it was anorexic. The 2010 MBA? A katana blade you could actually afford. Ultrabooks have only just started to catch up. And say what you will about the original iMac, but nothing had ever looked like it before, and nothing ever will again.
Apple is the company that transformed retina from a made-up buzzword to an industry standard. It's the company that knew what people wanted before they had any idea themselves.
Being so good for so long inevitably brings success, and success brings size, and size brings slowness. Besides, what's the rush? The iPhone sells great at 3.5-inches; why fuss with it? The Kindle Fire's a cheap little imposter; why sink to its level? Those are the questions shareholders and board members ask. It's hard to wonder what's next when what's now is such a cash cow.
And when you do finally notice that your marketshare is fading, that people are buying gigantic phones and small tablets and recommending them to their friends, you find yourself in the unusual position of having to react. It's harder to work off of someone else's blueprint, and $575 billion companies tend to have more chains of command to work through. Put it like this: it's easier to maneuver a rum-runner than it is the Queen Mary II. And Apple has spent the last several months tacking gradually towards the flares its competitors sent up a year (or more) ago.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with Apple giving the people want they want. It'd be crazy not to. And there's clearly still an innovation bug powering super-skinny iMacs and retina MacBooks in Apple's R&D labs. But more and more of the company's prominent releases are shades of other people's progress. It would have been unthinkable, a decade ago, for Apple to arrive this late to the party.
That's where we stand today, though. Instead of zagging when people zig, Apple lumbers huffily towards an anodized zig of its own.