Typically a solid indicator of an Apple product refresh is when the previous model of that particular product begins to see constraints and shortages. We saw this process prior to the launch of the iPad 2 in March of 2011, and we typically also see this process to prior to launches of Apple’s new Macs. Some examples from recent memory include MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and iMac constraints prior to their 2011 refreshes. Now, the same situation is starting to occur with the iPad 2, a device that will most likely be succeeded by a third-generation iPad in about a month.

According to a source familiar with Apple’s product distribution channels, the iPad 2 WiFi + 3G is constrained. Supply shortages span beyond Apple’s own distribution channels, though, as major retailers are reporting “out of stock” status for the 3G iPad 2. This includes, but is likely not limited to, Carphone Warehouse and Orange in the United Kingdom. Carphone Warehouse is reporting shortges of five out of six of their 3G iPad 2 models (everything but the black 64GB unit), and Orange UK is reporting shortages of half of the 3G iPad 2 SKUs: both 32GB models and the white 64GB unit. Read on for all of the details:

While none of the iPad 2 WiFi-only models are not constrained, a shortage of the 3G models is quite notable. The next-generation iPad is rumored to include some high end features such as a Retina Display, improved cameras, and a much speedier processor. With only the 3G models being constrained, the unconstrained status of the WiFi-only iPad 2s can be an indicator of Apple keeping the WiFi iPad 2 and tacking the iPad 3 on top as a more premium model. The key here is that none of the WiFi-only models are seeing shortages, as only the 16GB unit has been rumored to stay when the iPad 3 launches.

This is, of course, unless the WiFi iPad 2 models begin seeing shortages, which is obviously very possible.  Theoretically, Apple could offer the iPad 2 at reduced prices going forward with $399 being a likely starting price point. Apple has twice dropped the refurbished iPad 2 prices since launch to just $419 – where it now stands.  New iPad 2s can be currently be found as low as $429. We’re also seeing spotty reports of shortages in the U.S. at Best Buy, Target, and Walmart on a state-by-state basis.

But if Apple is keeping the WiFi-only iPad 2 around, why drop the 3G model?

A reason that Apple would need to drop the 3G iPad 2 entirely would be in order to finally merge CDMA and GSM cellular chips into one device. This is something that Apple has already done with their new iPhone 4S. Also, the combined baseband chips are Qualcomm, which would replace the GSM iPad 2 chips made by Infineon. These Qualcomm chips are also indemnified against Motorola patents, which is another plus for Apple moving forward.

In addition, an LTE iPad would call for all new hardware. LTE is something we’ve heard in recent rumors and is a feature we spotted in Apple’s beta SDK for iOS many months ago. While Apple may in the end refresh/discontinue both the WiFi-only and 3G iPad 2 models, the heavy constraints in Apple’s own distribution channels of a sizable part of the iPad 2 lineup is yet another strong indicator of the imminent launch of the next-generation iPad. (Top image: MSNBC)

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