And then there were two: what to expect from Apple’s iPad mini event

Over the past three years, Apple(s AAPL) singlehandedly launched and has continued to dominate the modern, touchscreen tablet market. The company has sold 84 million iPads as of the end of June, and all of them featured a 9.7-inch display. Tuesday is looking like the day we’ll see Apple’s take on a smaller version of its best-selling tablet.

Apple is holding a press event in San Jose, Calif. on Tuesday morning where it is expected to introduce a smaller, thinner, lighter-weight iPad with a 7.85-inch display; one that is expected to be easy on the eyes, but not quite to the level of the Retina display found on its larger iPad sibling, according to many reports.

Though there is enthusiasm for a smaller iPad now, perhaps thanks in part to some demand for Android tablets of that size, it was never a guarantee that Apple would experiment in smaller sizes with its iPad franchise. The company has boasted about the iPad’s larger screen being ideal for viewing videos and photos and browsing the web. And Steve Jobs maintained publicly that going smaller was pointless — he called 7-inch tablets “dead on arrival.” He made that pronouncement on an earnings call almost two years ago to the day that Apple is holding this event.

Why Apple changed its mind

Outside of its design philosophy, Apple is a conservative company — it is borderline allergic to industry fads (keeping away from Blu-ray drives and NFC technology, for instance) and it doesn’t embrace technology until its been proven (Siri and its own Maps app notwithstanding). But it is very adept at spotting where the market is headed. The iPad’s small changes thus far illustrate that: Apple finally added 4G networking and a Retina display earlier this year.

But if you followed Jobs and his career long enough, you know he was extremely prone to changing his mind; a flip-flopper, even. So when it was revealed this summer that before his death, Jobs was “receptive” to the idea of a smaller iPad, it’s really not too big of a shock.

His attitude toward smaller tablets isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the last few years. Apple’s competitors have figured out that, yes, actually people do want a 7-inch tablets. Amazon(s AMZN) found that out a year ago. Google(s GOOG) released its first branded Nexus tablet this summer and nearly a million are estimated to have been shipped. Microsoft(s MSFT) has completely rejiggered its Windows operating system and embraced a new world of integrated hardware and software. The first device it’s choosing to highlight those new products and strategies? A 7-inch touchscreen tablet.

In this light, it’s not surprising that Apple would get used to the idea of a smaller iPad: it can’t just let its biggest rivals lure current or potential customers away with smaller, more easily portable, and cheaper tablets. That would go against one of Jobs’ philosophies, to not allow companies to follow Apple into the market and let them undercut its products on price. As he said about the iPhone, “I think we have to be the best, and I think we have to not leave a price umbrella underneath us.”

The big questions

Though Apple’s plans for a smaller iPad have been a not-very-well-kept secret — this is a theme with Apple lately — there are still big questions we have going into the event. Here’s what we’ll be looking out for:

  • Price: Will it be more expensive than an iPod touch, but cheaper than an entry-level iPad? That would put it anywhere in the $300 to $498 range. But would Apple dare to go even cheaper than an iPod touch? John Gruber reasons that it may be priced starting at $249.
  • Screen size fragmentation: iOS runs on a variety of screen sizes: 3.7-inch iPod touch and older iPhones, 4-inch iPhone 5, and 9.7-inch iPad. How will a 7.85-inch display affect those developers who have to tailor their apps to even more screen sizes?
  • Name: The tech world has dubbed it the “iPad mini,” in a nod to the since-retired iPod mini. But Apple has been known to surprise with its somewhat unpredictable naming conventions.
  • Connectivity: In an attempt to differentiate a smaller iPad from the original, would Apple possibly make this product Wi-Fi only? Or will Apple offer 4G networking options identical to the larger iPad?
  • Spotlight on the Mac: This is not going to be an iPad-only show. I’ve heard there will be a new iMac (at long last) and a 13-inch version of the recently introduced MacBook Pro with Retina display. There have also been reports of a new Mac mini.
  • A new new iPad: Yes, the new (third-generation) iPad was just released in March. But there are reports that Apple will use Tuesday’s event to introduce a brand new 9.7-inch iPad that has been slightly tweaked: with a Lightning connector like the iPhone 5 and new iPod lineup, and new global LTE radios inside. Pricing is said to remain the same.
  • When can you start buying? It’s not clear when the Mac products would hit, though Apple is often ready to sell those on the day they’re announced. Leaked info indicates a Nov. 2 availability for a smaller iPad, which puts it on store shelves just in time to go head to head with the new Amazon and Microsoft tablets ahead of the holidays.

GigaOM will be live blogging the event Tuesday morning. We’ll kick things off a little before 10 a.m. PT.