SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — As Apple rumors go, this one is perhaps the most unanimous: A new, smaller iPad is on the way. Apple’s been getting its first real competition in the tablet market from the likes of Amazon Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble Nook and Google Nexus 7 — all 7″ tablets that are much smaller and cheaper than the iPad.

The overall tablet market will grow about 57% this year, but the 7″ tablet market will grow almost twice that fast. That’s what Apple is taking notice of. And few have failed to realize that iPads, while relatively common today, are still well outside the reach of many consumers at $499 to $829. A smaller iPad needs to be smaller in price as a goal, smaller in size as a way to get there.

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Apple likes to portray itself as a cutting edge leader, so the other interesting part of this story will be what unique features it can build into a smaller iPad to keep it from being a “me too” product.

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Steve Jobs forcefully discounted a smaller iPad as a bad idea while he was alive, so this would seem to be the first product that truly announces the Cook Era. That adds a certain drama to this unveiling that will start to give us insight into how sharp Apple’s design skills and market sense remain in the post-Jobs era.

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