Report: The iPad 3 is coming in early 2012 with Retina Display

The iPad 3 has been a topic of discussion since before the release of the iPad 2(s aapl), but so far it has been hard to pin down any firm details about the upcoming device. Friday, the Wall Street Journal published a report that cites early 2012 as the anticipated release for the iPad 3, and says that the next Apple tablet will indeed have a higher resolution display.

The information reported by the WSJ reportedly comes from “people” familiar with the matter, at least some of whom appear to be connected to Apple’s component suppliers. The sources reported that Apple has already placed orders for display panels and processors, with the goal of beginning trial production in October, in time for a full public release scheduled for early 2012. One source said Apple was planning to order as many as 1.5 million new iPads during the fourth quarter of 2011.

There were few details about the device’s specs or design from the WSJ‘s sources, although they did assert that the iPad 3’s screen resolution would be higher than the current model’s, at 2048 x 1536 instead of 1024 x 768. We’ve heard in the past from industry experts that Apple needn’t necessarily go that high with the iPad 3’s resolution to impress, but it would represent a significant marketing victory if the company could apply the “Retina Display” brand to its tablet line.

While I’ve been skeptical that Apple would release a second iPad in 2011, as some sources have been reporting, an early 2012 launch makes much more sense. Starting in a new calendar year makes it a lot less likely that existing iPad 2 owners will feel slighted by the move, an important consideration especially for a company like Apple, which owes a lot of its success to repeat business.

Apple might also start to vary the iPad’s update timeframe because the tablet seems to be competing more with PCs than with mobile devices. With Macs, Apple doesn’t really stick to a regular annual schedule for hardware updates, opting instead for small upgrades interspersed with major design overhauls.

The timing of this report also coincides with what is essentially the death of webOS(s hpq). Apple’s tablet advantage has never been more secure, but the prospect of a new device in the relatively near future definitely adds to that perceived lead.