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Price the question as mini iPad launch looms

A Chinese man tries out an iPad in Beijing Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. On Tuesday, the world's attention will turn to California, where Apple is set to make a product announcement that will undoubtedly flood Facebook and Twitter with countless posts lusting after what's expected to be a smaller, more mobile 20-centimetre iPad.

Andy Wong/AP

There are two hot topics of Apple speculation today: Will a shrunken version of the iPad burst onto the scene, and what will it do to the stock?

Hype for Tuesday's unveiling pushed the stock up almost 4 per cent on Monday, closing at $634.03, though that was still not enough to climb back to even last week's high of more than $650.

UBS analyst Steven Milunovich reiterated his $780 price target in, giving as part of his thinking a 65-per-cent revenue premium on apps purchased for the iPad over other iOS devices. If a new mini iPad repeats the trends of iPads past, Apple's dominance in that space would seem likely to increase.

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Speculation has settled on attempting to parse how much space Apple wants to leave under the price umbrella for its tablet rivals to exploit (the under $300 window? Under $400) and how much Apple will cannibalize sales of its own larger tablets with a smaller, cheaper device. Questions of specs and features (7.85 inches, instead of 7? WiFi only or 4G too? Two cameras? Better chips than iPad 2?) are almost secondary considerations.

But that middling interest on what's inside hints at the other subplot: The growing sense – despite a series of engineering tweaks to make its iPhones, iPads and MacBooks lighter, brighter, prettier and more powerful – that Apple's innovation well is drying up.

Driving through the hills around San Jose one can't help but notice the landscape provides a visual metaphor for that sentiment: It looks parched and dusty, the leaves brittle, the bushes and grass brown, with vast beds of needles under the conifers.

Taking dead aim at disenchantment with Apple's incremental improvements are the commercials for Samsung's Galaxy line of phones (which seem to be on every channel every few minutes on local TV). In faded colours, Apple-loving hipsters seem exhausted as they struggle to praise the placement of the headphone jack while SIII owners look on in baffled bemusement.

There is a counter case that suggests Apple still has lightning in its bottles. A recent piece by Sam Grobart in Bloomberg Businessweek reminds us the iPad launched in 2010, in the years following the financial collapse, when unemployment in the United States was near 10 per cent. In other words, Apple's expensive slab of touch-screen computing built a dominant lead in the tablet category in the very teeth of the Great Recession. Grobart writes Americans, and the rest of us, were ready to treat themselves to a slightly guilty pleasure. A not-quite computer, but a new way to consume media, to communicate, maybe even to work. It still bestrides that space, swallowing some 60-70 per cent of tablet sales in most of its markets. Extending that opportunity to escape with its tablet to a more cost-conscious cohort seems logical.

Apple must hope any sense of weariness will be washed away by its latest event. After all, that's the cyclical nature of the local climate: In Silicon Valley, November is the beginning of the renewal of the wetter winter season. It may be dry out there now, but analysts bullish on Apple stock expect that a launch this close to the holiday shopping season will spark eager consumers to once again make it rain.

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About the Author
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More


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