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Why the iPad mini? One word: Textbooks

I was at the dentist the other day, where I was talking to Laura-the-receptionist about tablets. "I'm sick of paying for rebinding [my kids' textbooks] every year," she told me. "My kid's teacher suggested we buy a tablet and purchase textbooks from Amazon instead of fixing them. Which tablet should I buy?"

Although schools pay a nominal fee per rebinding, parents often have to cough up a significant amount more. Cherry Creek High School charges $28 to rebind a single book. The eBook text costs just $14.99. It's a bargain until you start considering the tablet overhead.

The base Kindle sells for $70; the Fire for $200 -- although you can now buy used models for significantly less. The base iPad 2 starts at $399 and refurbished units are scarce on the ground at the online Apple Store. The Apple experience, it's clear, comes at a premium.

Although the Fire represents an outlay of nearly 3x more than the Kindle, many parents like the idea that their kid can surf the web, read email, and even run graphing calculator apps. As a point of reference, the TI NSpire sells for "just" $150 on Amazon (MSRP is $175.)

iPads are even more desirable, with their well-designed interface, expansive app store and broad support ecosystem. But they fail to compete on the basis of their price tag compared to a base Kindle + a TI calculator.

Between textbooks, research-related web access, calculator features, and e-mail contact with teachers, more parents than ever are on the hunt for inexpensive tablets, with the emphasis on inexpensive.

So why go tablet? Apple laid out many of the reasons in its education event early this year. The iPad, as Apple reminded us, communicates with the world. Apple has built an education business based on "teaching, learning, and student achievement" with over 20,000 iPad apps specific to education.

Apple's education-centric iBooks Author initiative focused on recreating the textbook. It attempted to engage students and expand the learning experience. The problem with that initiative is that Apple's bottom-line hardware starts at a price that's double that of the competition.

To make the iPad a real choice in the education marketplace, Apple needs an entry that competes with the bargain-basement tablets. iPads may be on every teen's Christmas wishlist, but parents are hard-pressed not to compare bottom lines.

That's why there's going to be the iPad mini. On October 23, Apple will likely launch a scaled-down iPad with basic features and a consumer-ready price. This is the event that parents like Laura have been waiting for.

For many, the iPad mini means that Apple will be a choice in a market where formerly parents might have felt priced out of buying. A smaller screen size and fewer options may allow students and their parents -- whether middle school, high school, or college -- to buy into the Apple ecosystem, where they formerly could not.

In the end, Apple's entire drive towards re-inventing the textbook doesn't matter if there aren't enough eyeballs and fingers to appreciate those titles with their rich tapestry of interactive design. An iPad mini will open the education market to a much broader range of customers and allow Apple to grow a customer base by investing in the future.

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