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So is Apple Really Going to Introduce a Small iPad?

On the heels of reports that the iPad 3 will be launched at an Apple media event on March 7th, there’s one other story that may be a game-changer, if true. According to yet another set of published reports, Apple has been sampling components for an 8-inch iPad with suppliers. The theory goes that such a model would, at a lower price, really cramp the style of the companies who build 7-inch tablets, such as the Amazon, with the Kindle Fire.

If Apple were to consider a “mini” iPad, it would certainly turn Apple’s position about such products on its heels. Consider what Steve Jobs said at a media event in 2010, where he asserted that the display on a 7-inch tablet was too small, that manufacturers ought to ship them with “sandpaper,” so customers could file down their fingers so they could work comfortably on the smaller device.

Now it’s also true that only one 7-inch tablet, the Amazon Kindle Fire, has seen success. Some suggest it’s because of the cheap price, no doubt the result of Amazon’s decision to sell the Fire at cost or somewhat above cost, hoping to benefit from sales of e-books and other products and services. Indeed, the trend has been for such companies as Samsung — and apparently even Amazon with the next Fire — to move to larger display sizes roughly on a par with the iPad after failing with tinier tablets.

The reports about this 8-inch iPad speak of it having a screen resolution that’s identical to the current iPad, which would mean that existing iPad apps would scale properly. The iPad 3 will reportedly have doubled resolution, at roughly 260 pixels per inch, meaning something akin to the iPhone’s Retina Display.

I suppose, if the stories are true, eight inches would be a more usable form factor than seven inches, though still a mite tiny, particularly for e-books and textbooks. Then again, it’s not so much smaller than the 9-inch displays on the original PowerBook 100 and “classic” all-in-one Macs, which had much lower resolution and hence room for less stuff on the screen. Maybe an iPad mini would be the magic compromise, and if Apple could deliver the goods for maybe $299 at the entry level, they’d put Amazon in a real bind.

However, the fact that Apple might be sampling components for a product doesn’t guarantee that product will ever see the light of day. There are certainly iPad prototypes of different sizes in Apple’s test labs. As the market matures, Apple will no doubt continue to test various screen sizes to find the ones they believe will be useful and successful. But it’s also true that, if lots of customers like the Kindle Fire after the initial excitement wears off, Apple would find a way to deliver a smaller iPad.

Then again, Jobs was talking about seven inches, not eight. But that doesn’t mean the rumors should be taken seriously. I suppose there could be some unexpected announcements at Apple’s iPad media event. And it’s a sure thing the event will take place, since the right members of the media, who have a lock on such information, have given it authority.

But it may well be that an 8-inch iPad might not arrive until the fall, the better to serve as potential stocking stuffers during the holiday season, or maybe for school systems. If Apple is only sampling parts now, it wouldn’t seem likely that a finished product would be ready any earlier.

Now when it comes to other potential products from Apple, there is that rumored Apple “smart” TV, iTV, or whatever you want to call it. The only update on the potential for such a product has it that the name iTV is a non-starter. It’s already used by a commercial TV network in the UK. Although Apple has loads of cash on hand, I doubt that the network, having established that name and its content, would consider giving Apple the rights to their trade name.

The remaining question is whether Apple really wants to get involved in the TV set business, or just deliver a souped up Apple TV set top box with far more content offerings. One story has it that Apple would simply strike deals with existing cable and satellite providers. If that’s the case, you’d merely launch an app for the service to which you subscribe to be able to check the schedule, change channels, and record your favorite shows. But the question is whether you’d have to attach the unit to your existing set top box, because of the need for a special card that activates the service, or whether it could be done with an app and a simple login.

Such a move would seem to put Apple in the same business as TiVO. Sure, Apple could simply enhance iTunes and deliver a full-blown TV subscription service that’s streamed direct to you. But how existing ISPs would handle the expected growth in bandwidth consumption is anyone’s guess. They might charge you a lot more, meaning that your bills for both the Internet and TV programming would increase sharply. That wouldn’t help Apple build a big customer base.

But that’s a story for another day and another time.