Apple seems to have worked pretty hard to free up a large window in its usual hardware release schedule, early in 2013.
Here's what we think it could, just possibly, be for.
On Tuesday Apple finally revealed its long-rumored iPad Mini . But it also revealed an upgraded iPad 3, which it specifically described as a fourth generation iPad. We'd been merely expecting a "tweaked" iPad, sporting the new Lightning connector. But now it looks like we have the iPad 4, and the iPad 3 (the previous "new iPad") has, in fact, been taken off sale.
The iPad 4 hits the shelves just over six months since the iPad 3--the first to sport a retina display--arrived. This move tallies with what seems to be Apple's iPad game plan, which is to release one overhauled unit a year, then improve its internals and tweak its casing for the next year's edition. But iPad 4 has effectively arrived far ahead of the April-ish window we would have expected, and it's coming so close on the heels of the iPad 3 that Apple detractors are crying foul and some iPad 3 buyers will be feeling buyer's remorse. That's why some Apple stores are offering a swap out on iPad 3s bought inside the last month.
If Apple did release a new iPad 5 (or perhaps 4S or some such) in April, that may be a spectacularly poor PR move because it would exacerbate any buyer's remorse, particularly if thousands of iPad 4s are bought by enterprise customers. Wall Street may get edgy about the act too, though of course we can't predict this exactly. Instead an October refresh schedule now seems to be the norm for the iPad. That would mean the new iPad 4 would be on sale for a year, alongside the new iPad Mini, and during that time Apple's engineers would have plenty of time to work on new screen tech, new 4G tech and--vitally--improved CPUs and graphics.
Which brings us to March. Apple seems to have a big, deliberate gap in its hardware schedule in the Spring/Summer of 2013.
Remember that there were recently a flurry of rumors  that Apple was speaking to movie and TV content providers to try to secure new deals, but negotiations were stalled . Consider that at yesterday's event there was no mention of the upcoming iTunes 11  release--which represents a serious make-over for a critical piece of Apple's iOS and content-serving infrastructure. Nor was there discussion of iTunes sales or any new movie studios signed on board. Apple's favorite "hobby" project, the Apple TV, didn't get a look in. Recall that some analysts recently said  that a full-on Apple Television was in "full production," and other rumors that any sort of Apple TV innovation would center on a remote , or perhaps Siri .
March-April 2013 now seems like a perfect window for a television-related Apple innovation, doesn't it? It may be a full TV set. It may be a totally super-powered iOS-based Apple TV puck, it may be a radical touchscreen remote. It may be all of these, some combination of them, or something different. But we really suspect TV is the name of the next Apple game.
In its Q4 earnings call, Apple did have a few things to say  about its existing Apple TV device. According to CEO Tim Cook, Apple sold 5 million of the devices in 2012, nearly double the 2.8 million it sold in 2011. The business "continues to do very well," Cook explained, but because its income was so much less significant than Apple's other businesses it's still small enough to warrant a "hobby" label.
But Cook was careful to note that it was a "beloved" hobby and Apple will continue to focus on the device because he believes "there is something more there."
Considering that the Apple TV really doesn't get any PR effort and that seemingly very little manpower is diverted to working on it, Cook's statements are actually slightly misleading. Selling 5 million devices at $100 leads to half a billion dollars in revenue (plus a long tail of movie and TV show rentals through the device), all of which is seemingly achieved at very low cost. Its success proves beyond doubt that there is a potent TV market waiting for Apple to tap it. And if Cook's company put hundreds of millions of dollars of manpower and promotional effort behind a new TV product, it's easy to see a potential for massive upside on half a billion dollars in revenue.
[Image: Flickr user ETC@USC ]