The sheer number of reports indicating Apple plans to launch a mini version of its iPad would lead one to believe that a 7-inch (18-centimeter) Apple tablet is a foregone conclusion. It's less clear, however, that the company has much to gain in taking on the likes of Samsung and Amazon head-on by shrinking the iPad while the current incarnation remains the dominant tablet.

While Apple has been characteristically mum regarding its product pipeline, recent Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg articles have added credibility to claims that the company would introduce a smaller tablet by year's end. Ostensibly, an iPad mini would let Apple tap into another category of the tablet market rather than cede sales of 7-inch handhelds to Amazon's Kindle Fire, Samsung's Galaxy and Google's Nexus 7.

It's conceivable that Apple could deliver a mini iPad—both the iPhone and iPad began as long-simmering rumors. Yet Apple iPads already represent more than 61 percent of the worldwide tablet market, doubling sales of tablets using Google's Android operating system, according to technology research firm Gartner.

Apple isn't likely to start making a 7-inch (18-centimeter) tablet unless that device can do something better than any other 7-inch tablet on the market, and Apple can make a lot of money doing it, says Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg. "Apple products exist because they sell at relatively high margins," he adds. "For Apple to introduce a mini tablet that would cost more than a Nexus 7 with the same specs doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

It's also not Apple's style to make products simply as a strategic move to keep consumers from buying competitors' products or to drive down prices, Gartenberg says. If Amazon and Google are selling the Fire and Nexus 7, respectively, for $199, then Apple would have to add something to its 7-inch tablet to justify a starting cost of $299 or $399, he adds.

Beyond market dynamics, midsize tablets are more for viewing content than creating it. With its five-megapixel digital camera and high-definition video-recording capabilities, the current 10-inch (24.6-centimeter) iPad is as much for content creation as it is for consumption. "Besides, Apple already has something that's a mini in their line up—the iPod touch," Gartenberg says. "Would they create a device that's in between the iPod touch and the iPad?"

All those caveats aside, it's still difficult to rule out a smaller version of the iPad. "Steve Jobs was dismissive of the 7-inch display, but Apple is frequently like that with things they later introduce to the market," Gartenberg suggests.

iPad image courtesy of Apple