A year ago most serious tech pundits would have laughed at the idea of a “mini” iPad out of Apple. The late Steve Jobs made it clear that the idea of a seven inch (17.8 cm) iPad was not on as such a “tweener” between the iPhone and the larger iPad was not wanted and would be “DOA”. However the rumors never quite died out and since Jobs passing in October 2011, have taken on new life.  Now, sources as diverse as CNET, Digitimes, Boy Genus Report and Wired are all suggesting that Apple will release a smaller tablet with a smaller screen size (17.8 com), and  less memory (8 GB vs the current minimum of 16 GB) and probably Wi-Fi only.  Interestingly, all sources agree that the rumored Apple tablet would retain the Retina class display. In fact, the new iOS device would have the highest pixel density of any iPad. Pricing has been rumored as low as $200.00 USD or £125.00.  This kind of pricing would be almost break even, or even lose a little per unit for Apple.

Some are saying that this is an attempt to kill off the downmarket Android tablets, especially the Kindle Fire, which accounts for almost half of of Android tablet sales in the United States last quarter. Others are saying that its an attempt by Apple chief operating officer Tim Cook to show that he is  his own man and not tied to the decisions of the late Mr. Jobs. Another view is the unexpected success of the Samsung Note's huge screened smartphone has caused a reevaluation of what the consumers want.  While the general public may never know what is driving Apple's product decisions, a review of the more reliable rumor reporting on the Web and a look at recent Apple moves tend to not only confirm that the iPad mini is real, but that Steve Jobs would have not only approved, but may well have set the gears in motion prior to his passing.

Back in January, Apple announced a partnership with American textbook makers and the introduction of the iBook2 format and publishing software. As we pointed out in our analysis of the move, school boards would be stymied by the high cost of supplying iPads to students in lieu of dead tree textbooks.  Unsurprisingly, this is exactly how things have played out over the last few months. Everyone likes the idea, but the iPads cost too much. Even if schools went with the cheapest iPad on offer, its still well beyond the cost of supplying every student with a Windows 7 Basic netbook.  In order to make the idea of iTextbooks viable, Apple has to either deeply discount the lower end of the existing iPad line or come up with a new solution.

Steve Jobs was a major advocate of education. Apple has historically provided deep discounts to academics, students and schools for its hardware and software. Apple has also quietly funded grants to put iPads into the classrooms, often at smaller, rural school districts in the US. Further, Jobs is famous for changing his sails while decrying the very direction he is planning to go. For example, in the early 2000s Jobs publicly stated that Apple was not interested in a smartphone. Jobs also had a real desire to put Apple into every aspect of a consumer's life, and schools were no exception. When Amazon Kindles proved the world was ready to read off a smaller, hand held form factor, Apple engineers may well have gotten their marching orders to come up with a low cost tablet.

So why was an iPad mini not announced at the January meeting? The best reason is that the new iPad was about to be released and Apple did not want anything to cut into its sales. The fact that the third generation iPad was not called the “iPad 3” could be a tell that Apple is going to introduce a new, different tablet line.  Further supporting that the iPad mini is squarely aimed at the education market is that the screen will be a retina display. The dense display makes it far easier on the eyes for reading. Because the expectation would be that students would not be downloading The Avengers movies, or an over abundance of apps, the smaller memory is not a problem either. In any case, with all the cloud based solutions, a lot of on board memory is not the need it once was.

If the rumors come to pass, then expect an announcement of the iPad mini as soon as the Apple World Wide Developers Conference in June, with a sale date in late July or early August. Pricing is likely to be sub $200.00 USD for schools and $250.00 USD for consumers. While the consumer price is still higher than the Kindle Fire, when you factor in the greater usability of the iPad line it' s worth the extra quid. Unless you are seeking a pure media consumption device, which is how Amazon views the Fire and why the UK release appears to be mired in content carriage issues, anyone on the tablet fence is likely to jump to iOS. Apple also neatly avoids any anti-competitive entanglements because this is a school device after all. Any popularity in the general consumer market? Well competition happens.