[ READ THE UPDATED VERSION OF THIS POST BASED ON THE OCT. 23 IPAD MINI LAUNCH DETAILS. ]
OK, I was wrong when I repeatedly dismissed the rumors that Apple would unveil an "iPad Mini" this year. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal, Apple's traditional venue for official leaks, reported the "iPad Mini" would be unveiled in October. And Apple has sinced announced it would unveil something "little" on Oct. 23. That 7-inch tablet rumor has been around even before the first iPad was announced, and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in no uncertain terms that a 7-inch tablet -- what Android makers were shipping prior to the iPad's debut -- simply couldn't handle the Web or apps very well, so Apple wouldn't go there.
"The 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps," Jobs said in October 2010. "Every tablet user is also a smartphone user. No tablet can compete with a smartphone" when it comes to stashing it in a purse or pocket. "Seven-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone, and too small to compete with an iPad," he said.
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Jobs' logic made a lot of sense, and when Amazon.com came out with its anemic Kindle Fire last fall, my belief that the "iPad Mini" was just another creation by rumormongering bloggers was strengthened. But then came the well-liked Nexus 7, the Asus-made, Google-branded 7-inch Android tablet that has a special front end to the standard Android OS -- a front end explicitly meant to promote music, video, reading, and game activities, all through the Google Play store.
One more Apple product in your collection
Apple apparently sees the same potential and will unveil an entertainment-oriented iPad with a slightly larger screen: 7.85 inches, per the more plausible reports. It makes sense in the context of being an iTunes-to-go device, since Apple already makes more money from iTunes than its entire iPod lineup. iPods (and iPhones and iPads) are the razors, and iTunes is the razor-blade dispenser, with perpetual revenue for Apple. The "iPad Mini" becomes yet one more razor in your collection that gets you to buy more blades.
Of course, the original iPad is already an iTunes-to-go device, in addition to being a laptop replacement for apps and serious Web browsing. I suspect Apple will position the "iPad Mini" as a supplemental device to the iPad and iPhone, much as the iPod Touch has become the iPad or iPhone training-wheels product for kids and the pocketable game console for adults who somehow don't have an iPhone. The "iPad Mini" will fit in a coat or jacket pocket, and it will be well suited for playing games, reading books, and watching videos. No doubt, it will also be able to stream to a TV via AirPlay akin to all other current iOS devices.
I also have no doubt that the "iPad Mini" will run the full iOS and standard iOS apps, much like the Nexus 7 does for Android. These standard apps will likely have an inferior experience, such as harder-to-read Web pages and cramped onscreen keyboard. However, those factors haven't hurt either the Nexus 7 or the Samsung Galaxy Note 5-inch "phablet" smartphone/tablet hybrid, whose screen is even smaller. I'll be curious if Apple changes the iOS UI significantly for the "iPad Mini," as Google did for the Nexus 7, but my instincts say no. iOS scales now from the iPhone's and iPod Touch's 3.5-inch screen to the iPad's 9.7-inch screen, and I suspect it'll scale to 7.85 inches as well. Apple won't want to penalize existing apps.