The Apple rumor mill is churning in high gear toward an iPad mini.
As always with rumors, many questions still need to be answered: When will the iPad mini arrive? How will iOS apps play on a smaller screen? Who will want an iPad mini?
We turned to Kyle Wiens, founder of iFixit, iOS app developer, and a regular Macworld | iWorld conference speaker, for some ideas. His track record for predicting Apple's moves is pretty good. Wiens, of course, agrees that an iPad mini is all but certain even though the late Steve Jobs dismissed such a product as a "tweener"-too small to be a good tablet, too big to be a practical smartphone.
"Steve Jobs always used to say things are lame two years before he did them," Wiens says. "He liked to throw people off the chase."
The Wall Street Journal pushed the idea of an iPad mini front and center earlier this month. Supplier sources told The Wall Street Journal that Asian component suppliers were gearing up for mass production in September of an Apple tablet with a screen size smaller than eight inches. Currently, the iPad has a 9.7-inch screen size.
An astute Apple observer, Wiens isn't convinced of a September launch, which, of course, is only a couple of months away. "I would have seen more parts leaks," he says. "It makes me think it won't be as soon as people want."
When the iPad mini does arrive, Wiens expects existing iPad apps to run smoothly. Apps will use the exact same aspect ratio and resolution (1024 x 768) on both screen sizes. Some app developers may have to retool buttons, because they'll be too tiny for people to tap with their finger on the smaller screen.
"I think most apps will be able to deal with a tinier screen," Wiens says. "It also feels like Apple has gotten better with either the accuracy of the touch sensor or the error correction on the software. It'll be a better experience... even though buttons are smaller."
So what's behind the miniaturizing of tablets?
Amazon's Kindle Fire with a 7-inch touchscreen became the first serious rival to the iPad, although the Kindle Fire has fizzled lately. Initial success, though, proved the value of the form factor and the lower price tag that comes with it. The newly released Google Nexus 7 tablet with a 7-inch screen is already overshadowing the Kindle Fire and poses the biggest threat to the iPad.
(Meanwhile, Microsoft has gone the other way. Its newly announced Microsoft Surface Windows 8 tablet with a 10.6-inch will go head-to-head with the iPad.)
While a large-screen tablet offers the best experience for media consumption and gaming, a smaller-screen tablet appeals more toward employees who use tablets for work.
Slideshow: 15 Ways iPad Goes to Work
Wiens predicts an array of enterprise uses for the iPad mini wherever mobility trumps a larger display. The iPad may be extremely portable compared to a laptop, but it's not very mobile in terms of in-the-field use like a smartphone. The smartphone, on the other hand, is too small to get much work done.
"With service manuals, you need to see pictures to do repairs, which makes the iPad much more usable than the iPhone," Wiens says. "Yet you might be in tight places, so something in between would be reasonable."
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at email@example.com
Read more about tablet pcs in CIO's Tablet PCs Drilldown.