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iPad mini to debut during second half of 2012?

The latest iPad mini rumor suggests the tablet will hit the market in the third or fourth quarter as Apple has lined up suppliers for the LCD panel.

The iPad and its imaginary, smaller friend.

Apple has reportedly already tagged LCD suppliers for an iPad mini, with an eye toward launching the tablet in the second half of the year.

This latest scuttlebut comes courtesy of Taiwan news outlet Liberty Times (English translation).

Citing the usual, vague "market rumors" but also a report from Japanese securities firm Macquarie, the Liberty Times said the iPad mini could start shipping by the end of the third quarter with a goal of 6 million units.

That 6 million is the same number projected last month by Chinese online portal Netease.

LG and Au Optronics have already passed Apple's certification tests to provide the tablet's LCD panel, the report said. Both have been working to ship the panels for actual production of the diminutive iPad, according to the report.

Further details translated by Japanese blog site Macotakara say TPK Holding will produce 4 million backlight modules, with Chimei Innolux providing an additional 2 million. Nissha Printing would make the tablet's touch film sensor.

This latest rumor follows other claims, some still tentative, that Apple will unveil a 7-inch iPad this year.

Barclays analyst Ben Reitzes recently pointed to evidence of an iPad mini in the supply chain, as seen by the firm's global research team. One report said that the small tablet would offer 8GB of storage and sell for $200, while Netease put the price tag in the range of $249 to $299.

The iPad finally got a bit of competition in the fourth quarter from Amazon's 7-inch Kindle Fire, which boosted the overall market share for Android tablets.

Apple has since regained lost ground and remains the dominant player in the tablet arena. IHS projects a tablet market share of around 61 percent this year.

Still, the iPad has watched its lead decline amidst a swarm of Android tablets, large and small, released over the past year. An iPad mini could be the ticket to combat the Kindle Fire and other smaller tablets. But Apple typically sets the trends rather following those already set by others. So if we do see an iPad mini this year, I'd expect Apple to add some kind of twist to distinguish it from its Android rivals.