March debut of 'iPad 3' a sure bet, says analyst

Higher-resolution screen, Siri are certainties, says expert, who also expects a 7-in. tablet from Apple this year

Apple will introduce a new iPad the first full week of March, and will start selling it the following week, according to reports and industry analyst expectations.

The March debut of the iPad 3, as some have called it, was first reported today by AllThingsD, the blog owned by Dow Jones, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal. Citing unnamed sources, the blog said Apple will host a launch event the first week of March, likely at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, a regular venue for the company's press announcements.

Last year, then-CEO Steve Jobs returned from medical leave to lead the launch event of the iPad 2 on March 2. Apple started selling the new tablet on March 11, 2011 via its online store.

If Apple follows the same timeline, it will probably conduct the event the week of March 5-9, and begin selling the new model the following week.

It's possible that Apple will trot out a new iPad on one of the first two days of March -- Thursday, March 1 or Friday, March 2 -- but Apple usually hosts events earlier in the week.

Next month's iPad introduction, if it does take place, will be the first without Jobs, who died last October at the age of 56 of complications from his long-running battle with pancreatic cancer.

Rumors have been circulating for weeks about the next iPad, with many claiming that Apple's next tablet will boast several important changes, ranging from a quad-core processor to a higher-resolution screen.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, dismissed the former but said the latter was a certainty.

"[The next iPad] will have a higher-resolution screen that Apple will call a Retina display, even if it's not," said Gottheil, talking about the term Apple uses for the iPhone's 326 pixel-per-inch (ppi) screen. "That's important to them because it means the iPad will work well in their home theater play, since it will display full HD. And it's an important differentiator [between the iPad and rival tablets] going forward."

The iPad 2's 9.7-in. screen has a resolution of 1024-by-768 pixels, or 132 ppi.

An iPad with a screen similar to the Retina display on the iPhone would have to have a resolution of approximately 3,220-by-2,060 pixels. Most of the chatter about the next iPad's screen, however, has pointed to a resolution of 2,048-by-1,536 pixels, exactly double that of the iPad 2.

It's possible that Apple will up the iPad's processor to a quad-core, acknowledged Gottheil, but he said that was a long shot because of the power requirements. More likely is that Apple has settled for a faster dual-core system-on-a-chip, perhaps one designated A6 to mark improvements over 2011's A5 that powers both the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S.

"Siri will be there for sure," added Gottheil, moving on to other predictions. "It's clear that there's some kind of hardware constraint, probably related to the noise reduction circuitry."

Siri has been cited by most analysts as a major factor in the iPhone 4S' sales last quarter, when Apple sold a record number of smartphones, most of them the Siri-able iPhone 4S.

Gottheil also expects that Apple will mimic its current iPhone practice and keep selling last year's iPad 2, albeit at a lower price. His bet: $400 for an iPad 2 with Wi-Fi only and 16GB of flash-based storage space.

And the company will want to replicate last year's short span between announcing the next iPad and the start of sales.

"They're very strong on getting a product out as soon as possible," said Gottheil. "They're going to have a relatively tough first quarter for iPads as it is, what with buyers, like me, who are waiting for the next one."

Apple suffered from that phenomenon last year when sales of the iPhone slumped in the quarter prior to its October launch. Company executives admitted that the nearly-constant Internet buzz about the next iPhone contributed to that slow-down.

Gottheil went out on a smaller limb for another pair of predictions, saying that he expects Apple to roll out a smaller 7-in. iPad -- though not at the upcoming event -- and perhaps tout a specially-designed wireless keyboard-case accessory for its tablet.

"I believe that's always been in the plan" said Gottheil of a small iPad, contradicting past comments by Jobs, who had rejected seven inches as too small for a tablet. "Actually that's a good form factor for some users, and although they will also charge a premium above other similar-sized tablets, they want to protect that price flank."

The hottest-selling 7-in. tablet has been Amazon's Fire, which debuted last November and serves primarily as an e-reader, secondarily as a true tablet.

A matched Bluetooth keyboard, perhaps integrated with a case to enclose the iPad, is also a long shot, but something that could attract customers.

"I think something like that would be an important peripheral for students," Gottheil said.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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