Is this why Apple moved its iPad mini launch?

October 15, 2012: 7:07 AM ET

Cupertino just might be playing hard ball with one of its major rivals.

By Don Sears, contributor

FORTUNE -- Looking for a reason for Apple's change of date and time? Look out your Windows.

Much to the chagrin of Apple (AAPL) aficionados, October 10 came and went and the press did not receive an invitation to the presumed launch of the company's smaller iPad model. It was widely reported the original date of the event was to occur on Wednesday, October 17. The new expectation is for invitations to come out this week, with the event occurring Tuesday, October 23rd. (Cross your fingers.)

Who cares, right? It's only a week. Even the most die-hard can wait a week. I know some folks in Redmond, Washington who are presumably frustrated to learn of the date change.

Here's how things go normally. Seven days before major Apple events, email invitations go out to the press. The invitation itself -- normally some mysterious logo with a date, time, location and vaguely suggestive tagline -- is news because the anticipation about what is being launched is so high. Even with more product details and images leaking since Steve Jobs passed away.

MORE: Did the iPhone 5 really overtake the Galaxy SIII in 18 days?

So what happened this time? My guess is Microsoft (MSFT) happened. Apple's event is now rumored to be two days before the respective Windows 8 and Surface tablet launches. Is this is coincidence? No way. Not in my opinion.

By moving the date a week, Apple stands to gain more media and consumer traction against its longest-standing rival. A rival, no less, that is now expanding into tablets and is a small but growing mobile phone competitor. Microsoft is taking a cue from Apple on engineering the full product. But Apple is flexing its media muscles to make the last week of October about, well, itself. Something like: "You want to run plays from our playbook, Ballmer? Check this out..."

To its credit, Microsoft did an amazing job keeping its smaller-form factor tablet plans a secret this year and that may have spooked Apple a bit. The only thing Apple did know was when Windows 8 will be launching in October, and that the Surface tablet would be part of that launch.

MORE: Apple pays up for lifting the design of a Swiss clock

The smaller 7" tablet space, while not completely new for Android hardware makers, didn't really see any major consumer traction until Amazon (AMZN) dove in head-first last holiday season with the Kindle Fire, and most recently with its latest foray in to the 10" space going head-to-head with the iPad. With Barnes & Noble's Nook (BN) tablet and Google's (GOOG) Nexus 7, competition for consumers in smaller packages and more affordable prices might actually heat up.

My guess is that this isn't only about the tablet market. It's also about laptops and the PC operating system. The PC industry continues to lug about as shipment numbers decline and analysts reset their expectations for Windows 8 and Intel's (INTC) sluggish market for thin and light laptops. Microsoft needs to take charge of its own destiny with Surface and Windows 8. But on the week of October 22nd, expect Apple to dominate our collective ears, eyes and social media streams.

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