Editors' note, October 16, 2012: Updated after the release of Apple's October 23 invite.
There have been rumors of a smaller, 7-inch iPad since...well, since there was an iPad. The iPad Mini, as it's being called lately, initially seemed to some like a silly idea: why would you need a smaller iPad? It's actually a logical idea: make an iPad even more portable and more affordable than before. The only question is, when would such a product finally exist?
A 7-inch screen with the same aspect ratio and screen resolution as on the iPad 2. Rumors say the iPad Mini will end up having a 7.8-inch display, making for a larger tablet than typical 7-inchers. The iPad Mini needs to run iPad apps seamlessly out of the box, and keeping to the iPad 2's 1,024x768-pixel resolution makes the most sense. Depending on the screen size, it shouldn't interfere with the ability to easily use apps. The third-gen iPad's 2,048x1,536-pixel Retina Display is likely to be the key difference between it and the Mini, similar to the difference between the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD.
A smaller bezel. A smaller tablet wouldn't necessarily require the same size bezel to hold it. Mock-ups and rumors (hardly anything to hang your hat on) suggest a design that's more like that of the iPod Touch. The best reference would be other 7-inch tablets, which don't have extra-large bezels.
An October debut...right around Windows 8. Microsoft has a big product debut around the corner. Apple's new iPad could end up hitting stores before the October 26 debut of Windows 8, stealing a bunch of the hype around Windows RT tablets and Surface.
An affordable price. Rumors suggest that the iPad Mini's entry price could be as low as $249. That would let it compete directly against tablets like the Kindle Fire HD and Google Nexus 7. Yes, it would be more expensive than both of those products, but not by much. In standard Apple pricing math, expect the price of the highest-configured iPad Mini to come close to or overlap with the price of certain configurations of the third-gen iPad, but stay logical in relation to the $299 fifth-gen iPod Touch.
It'll replace the iPad 2. Speaking of Apple's venerable $399 tablet, expect it to go bye-bye. An iPad Mini would meet or exceed the iPad 2's capabilities in a smaller form, and probably cost less.
Front and rear cameras. The iPod Touch has a camera. The iPhone has a camera. Alleged iPad Mini cases have shown a camera, too. We'd expect rear- and front-facing cameras for FaceTime, considering that the ever-more-affordable iPhone 4 includes the same. Just don't expect a camera as good as that on the iPhone 5. The fifth-generation iPod Touch camera seems like a safer model to replicate: HD front iSight camera, 5-megapixel back camera with 1080p video recording.
The absence of a few features seen on the larger iPad. If the iPad Mini were everything the larger iPad was but smaller and less expensive, who would buy the larger iPad? An iPad Mini will have to satisfy a certain audience while maintaining a different feature set, just like the iPod Nano and Mini did with the larger iPod. The question is, what would those absent features be? Maybe the smaller screen and lack of a higher-res Retina Display could be enough. Or, perhaps it doesn't have 4G LTE or 3G, although the latest rumors suggest the iPad Mini will come in wireless broadband flavors.
A Lightning connector. Apple's new, smaller Lightning connector port has already emerged on the iPhone 5, iPod Touch and iPod Nano. All iOS devices going forward will have Lightning, including an iPad Mini. This would give the iPad Mini a feature the third-gen iPad lacks, but it makes total sense: a smaller connector port would help the Mini be even more compact.
A use case for the iPad Mini as a second iPad. There's a question many might ask: why make a smaller iPad? Well, why make a larger Kindle Fire? Why make different iPods? A lower-priced, smaller iPad feels positioned as a secondary iPad, or an iPad best suited for kids. Expect Apple to clearly explain what an iPad Mini is best used for, and why it's a compelling device in its own right.
A big educational push. The iPad has been a big factor in schools, and Apple's iPad-themed education in New York earlier this year shows how serious the school initiative is. iPads are used in classrooms, for special-needs students, and for a massive variety of apps. Making a smaller and more affordable iPad means it'll be a big, big product in school systems. Perhaps textbooks would be discussed as well.
Candy colors? If the iPad Mini has a design that looks, based on photos, to be very similar in spirit to the latest iPod Touch, could a variety of colors be part of the iPad Mini game plan? It sounds like a frivolous detail, but brightly-colored iPads would make them stand out from the more "pro"-oriented third-gen Retina Display models, and perhaps be more appealing to kids. Then again, the latest rumors suggest black and white only.
Will it even be called the iPad Mini? That's just one of the uncertainties surrounding this mystery device. Stay tuned for more details as we count down to next week.