Will Apple Launch iPad Mini This Month?

Analysts, investors, and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) aficionados alike have been closely tracking news on what could be the Cupertino-based company’s biggest step forward since it introduced the first iPad in 2010. And now it seems that much-speculated device could be hitting stores in time for the crucial holiday shopping season.

Of course, we’re talking about the iPad Mini. Media reports have Apple holding a press event on October 17 to unveil the smaller tablet. The company is expected to send out invitations to reporters on October 10, both Fortune and Mashable have reported, though as usual, Apple has confirmed nothing.

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It promises to be a big shopping season for tablets, with Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Samsung (SSNLF.PK) all releasing new products. Amazon’s new Kindle Fire, in particular, promises to be a real seller. The company currently leads the market for smaller-screen tablets with its 7-inch Kindle Fire, which debuted in November 2011, and unveiled its second-generation Kindle Fire HD family on September 6. The smaller tablets start at $199.

Despite its lead, Amazon won’t go unchallenged — Barnes & Noble rolled out new versions of its tablet, also in high-definition, on September 26. The new 7-inch Nook HD also starts at $199. And like Amazon, Barnes & Noble also has a larger version of the tablet, with a slightly higher price point: a 9-inch Nook HD+, starting at $269. Amazon’s 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD with 4G LTE starts at $499, and more closely competes with Apple’s latest iPad than either of Barnes & Noble’s devices.

Apple’s second- and third-generation iPads, which start at $399 and $499, respectively, both have 9.7-inch screens. The third-generation iPad is the first with 4G LTE technology, but it will cost customers an extra $130 more than the same-generation Wi-Fi only version. Apple’s rumored iPad Mini, on the other hand, is expected to have a 7.85-inch screen — more comparable to the $199 models available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and a lower price tag to match.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Samsung tablets all run versions of Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android operating system, and now Google, too, has its own branded tablet, the Nexus 7, yet another 7-inch tablet starting at $199. But Apple’s iPad Mini, like all of the company’s mobile devices, would be running on its iOS mobile operating system, giving customers a bit more variety in the lower-end market.

A lower-end, smaller iPad would open up a whole new market to Apple just as its share of the tablet market is beginning to decline. Apple is likely to end the year with a 66 percent share of the market, based on shipments of 106 million, Pacific Crest Securities predicted Tuesday. The research firm predicts Amazon will take 11 percent of the market, followed by Samsung with 6 percent, Google with 4 percent, and Microsoft and Asus with 3 percent each.

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