If and when Apple releases a 7.x-inch iPad, what will they call it? What will appear on the keynote slide high above Phil Schiller at the introduction event? What will appear on Apple.com and, more importantly for shoppers, on Apple's online listings and retail store tables?
Internally, for now, Apple might still be calling it "the 7-inch iPad" and be leaving the big branding decisions for closer to launch time. Or maybe they've already decided to call it an iPad mini or something else. Either way, whatever name they choose will influence how the public understand the new device and its place in Apple's lineup, and that's an interesting topic to explore.
Now let's take a look at what that smaller iPad could be called.
iOS device-style branding
Originally there was the iPhone. As Apple expanded the iOS family of products, they added new brands to round out the line -- iPhone, iPod touch, iPad.
Individual SKUs are further categorized by color and storage size, and other factors -- White iPhone 4S 16GB, black iPad 64GB Wi-Fi + 3G
Apple could do something similar with the 7-inch iPad -- give it an entirely new brand name. iBook has already been taken by the eReader software and service, but Apple could come up with something else for the smaller-screen tablet.
Individual SKUs could then be further categorized by color, storage size, and Wi-Fi vs. Wi-Fi + 4G.
It seems unlikely Apple would further complicate the product mix for a device for which size alone is the only major differentiator.
Originally there was the iPod. As Apple expanded the iPod family of products, they kept the iPod brand but added sub-brands to the mix -- iPod shuffle, iPod nano (replaced iPod mini), iPod classic, and iPod touch.
Individual SKUs are further categorized by color and storage size -- Red iPod nano 8GB, white iPod touch 64GB,
Apple could do something similar with the iPad -- iPad and iPad mini.
Individual SKUs could be further categorized by color, storage size, and Wi-Fi vs. Wi-Fi + 4G.
This branding is simple, clean, and fits with Apple's past (iPod mini) and current (Mac mini) brands.
(It's also what Palm used for the TouchPad Go, to differentiate the 7-inch webOS tablet from the 9.7 inch model, though arguably "Go" is a step more obscure than "mini" since portability is function of size.)
MacBook Air-style branding
When Apple introduced the third generation, redesigned MacBook Air, they added a smaller model to the product family. What they didn't do was add another new brand, or sub-brand. There was no MacBook mini or MacBook Air nano.
If and when size is an issue -- when shopping, comparing, looking for support, etc., they're simply referred to as 11-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Air. (Not MacBook Air 11 or MacBook Air 13.)
Like iPods, individual SKUs are further categorized by storage size -- 64GB and 128GB for the 11-inch and 128GB and 256GB for the 13-inch. Other MacBook's are classified by processor quantity or speed, etc. (I'm ignoring build-to-order options since those don't yet apply to iOS devices.)
Apple could do something similar with the iPad -- 7.85-inch iPad and 9.7-inch iPad.
Individual SKUs would still be further categorized by color, storage size, and Wi-Fi vs. Wi-Fi + 4G.
This is superficially simpler, as there remains only one iPad brand, but not as obvious, as inch-measures require more thought than abstractions like "mini" and "not" mini.
Since the MacBook Air is already a sub-brand (of MacBook, alongside MacBook Pro), going with measures keeps the brand from extending out absurdly, the way a Microsoft brand might. Since the iPad isn't a sub-brand of anything (there's no public iOS device super-brand sitting on top of it), going with measures isn't necessary here.
[Update: This section was added after John Gruber of Daring Fireball proposed the idea of an "iPad air".
When Apple introduced their first new laptop in years, they didn't call it a MacBook mini. They called it a MacBook Air.
Originally there was MacBook, MaBook Pro as well. Apple no longer sells the plain MacBook anymore, so now there's just MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.
Air was and is aspirational and symbolic branding. It focused on the thinness and lightness of the new laptop. And that just might be what Apple wants to focus on with the new, thinner, lighter iPad.
iPad Air could do that.
Google tablet-style branding
Google released their small tablet as the Nexus 7. Since there aren't any other sizes (yet?), it's impossible to say with certainty how Google will handle growing the product line, if they ever decide to grow it. However, if there's a Nexus 7 it makes sense a larger tablet would be called the Nexus 10 (or whatever the size ends up being.)
However, the Nexus branding in general is terribly opaque -- Nexus One, Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7, Nexus Q,
Most of those are phones, one is a tablet, and one is a sound box. Yet there's no way to tell which is which by the names, which is more recent than any other, or what the brand extensions actually mean. (The Nexus S(amsung) is a phone, but the Nexus Q(ueue) is a music box, yet they're both letters, and the letter that comes earlier in the alphabet was released later, and... sigh.)
Because Apple has used naked numbers to designate generations in the past, like iPad 2 and iPhone 4, they can't use the same system to designate screen size without creating confusion. At least not immediately. (An iPad 7 would make consumers wonder how they missed the iPad 4, 5, and 6.)
Apple almost certainly won't go this route.
Samsung tablet-style branding
Samsung's original tablet was the Galaxy Tab. When they added larger models, they incorporated the actual screen size measures into the brand names -- Galaxy Tab 10.1, Galaxy Tab 7.7, Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus (?!), Galaxy Tab 8.9.
When Samsung added new generations of hardware, they added the generation number in as well -- GalaxyTab 2 10.1, Galaxy Tab 2 7.0.
While Apple uses screen size measures in stores and on product information pages -- 21.5-inch iMac, 27-inch iMac, they don't use them as part of the public facing brand.
An iPad 7.85 wouldn't make it into an Apple keynote.
Apple's branding is typically as succinct as Occam's Razor. Earlier this year, they took it a step further and rebranded what would have been the iPad 3 as simply the (new) iPad. While we probably won't see Phil Schiller on stage beneath a slide reading "the small iPad", we probably will see him beneath one reading the 7-inch iPad, or the iPad mini.