iPad 3 rumor mill powers up

Latest tablets could be facing competition almost immediately from not one, but two new iPad models

Despite efforts by Google, HP, Dell and others to grab center stage in recent weeks with tablet computer announcements, Apple and its market leading iPads remain the chief attention getters.

Even as HP made a splash Wednesday with its WebOS-based iPad killer, the TouchPad, speculation turned to what some are calling the iPad 3 – a possible future Apple product that would come shortly after another expected future Apple product, the iPad 2.

Daring Fireball blogger John Gruber got the iPad 3 (or perhaps iPad 2.5) discussion going Wednesday when he wrote favorably about the TouchPad (aside from HP's lack of pricing info and detailed availability info) but warned that it could be facing competition almost immediately from two new iPad models (we compare the TouchPad to the current iPad here).

Based on Apple's product release history, Gruber says he expects an iPad 2 to be released by April and an iPad 3 around September, in plenty of time for the holiday crush.

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TechCrunch confirmed that Apple is plotting a big surprise for the fall and says it's hearing an iPad 3 is in the offing.

This is fresh off a flood of commentary this week about a potential iPad 2 sparked by a report in the Wall Street Journal about Apple cranking up manufacturing of such a product. Reportedly, the iPad 2 will be thinner and lighter than the first edition of Apple's tablet, and boast at least one front-facing camera that could be used for FaceTime videoconferencing and other apps.

As for what an iPad 3 might entail, speculation is ramping up. Gruber suggests such a device would likely run a Version 5.1 upgrade of Apple iOS and possibly HD capabilities with a retina display.  Others have tossed out that Apple might introduce a smaller version of the iPad (an "iPad Mini", along the lines of a Samsung Galaxy Tab sizewise) or perhaps one optimized for business use.

The consensus of those analyzing where Apple is headed with its iPad tablets is that the company can't afford to slow down the pace of innovation even though it owns three-quarters of the worldwide tablet market.  Android, with plenty of announcements expected next week at Mobile World Congress, RIM and others are coming on strong.

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