The steady stream of rumors that Apple has an “iPad mini” in the pipeline to compete with the Kindle Fire and newly announced Google Nexus 7 got a boost from The New York Times today:

The company is developing a new tablet with a 7.85-inch screen that is likely to sell for significantly less than the latest $499 iPad, with its 9.7-inch display, according to several people with knowledge of the project who declined to be named discussing confidential plans. The product is expected to be announced this year.

Natalie Kerris, an Apple spokeswoman, declined to comment.

What’s interesting about this seemingly inevitable release (although I’m still not convinced) is that it would mark Apple’s first post-Jobs decision that falls outside of his original vision for the tablet.  Apple doesn’t have a history of grappling at the low end of the market (think $400 notebooks) because the margins are incredibly low, and jumping into such a market because of a perceived threat seems like a defensive and reactive move.  It was only a few years ago that pundits were calling on Apple to get into the thriving netbook market or get left behind.  To me this feels like Netbook 2.0.

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