2011: Year of Two iPad 2s?

Back in February, a number of high-profile bloggers suggested Apple (s aapl) might actually launch more than one iPad in 2011. John Gruber speculated that it made more sense to move the iPad launch from spring to fall, adding new iPads with the widely-expected Apple event for iPods. Jim Dalrymple agreed, thinking Apple might “enhance” the iPad line. MG Siegler was less circumspect, citing a “very good source” for “a big fall surprise” related to a “would-be iPad 3,” but later backed off from that actually being an iPad 3. Finally, Leander Kahney, citing an Apple staffer, said the iPad 3 is the “one to make a song and dance about,” and that it was “on track” for this year.

In contrast, TheAppleBlog’s Darrell Etherington urged caution in predictions of an iPad 3, though he suggested there might be room for a complementary model. Arguably, his caution was prudent. During the iPad 2 launch event in March, a Keynote slide declared 2011 to be the year of the iPad 2. Singular.

Even so, Apple leadership has a habit of altering the company’s course, often very suddenly, as with the transition from Mac OS to OS X or from PPC CPU architecture to x86. More recently, after years of asserting a 13-inch display was the minimum size for a laptop, the company launched the 11-inch MacBook Air. Perhaps similarly, after asserting a 9.7-inch display was the minimum for a tablet, Apple might yet launch a 7-inch iPad 2.

The problem with a 7-inch iPad is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest, or rather, there’s a huge amount of interest in the 9.7-inch iPad 2, which suggests consumers aren’t sweating the lack of a smaller version. From AppleInsider, Ticonderoga Securities analyst Brian White’s “barometer” of Apple component suppliers suggests their triple-digit growth “was driven largely by the ramp of iPad 2.” Fortune (s twx) reports on a “small but growing group” of analysts predicting 7 million iPads sold this quarter. That would come after Apple sold a record 7.3 million iPads during the holiday quarter last year, and would be a strong indicator of iPad sales in excess of 30 million this year, double last year’s total. Finally, DigiTimes is citing supply-chain sources that “have not yet received any notice for next generation iPad products and do not believe iPad 2 is a transitional product.”

The circumstantial evidence so far is against another iPad this year, including a 7-inch model. Setting aside the repeated denunciations of the smaller display by Apple executives, the real question would be, why introduce a new model when the current one is so successful? There is no reason, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Take the example of the iPod Mini. In 2005, the multi-colored iPod Mini with its hard-drive storage was hugely successful, and yet in the fall of that year, it was promptly replaced by the smaller iPod nano.

There’s something about the “year of the iPad 2” assertion that seems too certain, too definitive for a company as unpredictable as Apple. Since when does Apple provide any information about its product release plans more than a few weeks in advance? Despite indications that Apple is sticking to one iPad model release per year, there’s just no such thing as a safe bet when it comes to this company.