Apple working on an "iPad mini"

Apple expected to launch a 7-8 inch iPad in the next 6 months

Apple is working on a smaller iPad to compete with Amazon's Kindle Fire and the Google Nexus 7, according to reports in both Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal. Bloomberg, which cites "two people with knowledge of the plans", adds that the tablet won't have a retina display of the type seen on all current-generation iPads and iPhones. The WSJ, citing "people familiar with the situation", adds that it is expected this year.

The tablet is likely to sell for a price competitive to that of the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7, which would mean around £150 in the UK. Although those two tablets are heavily subsidised to hit that price point, Apple remains primarily a hardware company, so would likely only sell such a device if they could make a relatively healthy profit on first sale.

This fact, combined with the expectation that the new device will have a lower resolution screen, has led many to speculate that Apple will be using the same manufacturing process it currently uses to make the screens for the iPhone 3GS, the cheapest phone it currently sells. That process has three years of refinement behind it, and using the screens for a second device would lead to greater economies of scale, increasing the company's margins further.

In addition, the size of a screen with the same resolution as an iPad (1024x768) and the pixel density of an iPhone 3GS (160dpi) would be around 7.75 inches. This would result in a device significantly smaller than the current iPads, but which developers – Apple's perennial advantage over its competitors – could support without having to do any extra work.

This means that Apple could bring out a tablet with a full collection of native apps from day one – something which the Nexus 7 will lack, as well as any access to music, magazines or TV shows in the UK.

And they will retain the economies of scale which they currently have with the iPad 2, as many of the components in that are likely to be cannibalized for the new tablet.

The one question that remains is when. MG Siegler has doubts about the "this year" timeframe, arguing that it would clash with, and overshadow, the expected launch of a new iPhone this autumn, while Marco Arment points out that, to fulfil demand for this Christmas, Apple would realistically have to have begun production, which almost always involves leaks of size and shape – yet we have had none.

It seems likely, then, that we will see a 7.7", 1024x768 "iPad mini" arriving around January, the same time as all three previous iPads have been announced. Google will have a six-month head start in the UK, and will need every day of it.

The iPad mini. Maybe.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”