Several days before the iPad 2 was formally announced, and again literally hours before Apple’s special media event in San Francisco took place, we published solid information from reputable sources indicating that Apple did not have sufficient inventory for a proper launch of a new iPad. Contacts told us that the sort of massive but quiet build-up necessary for a new product launch had not yet begun, and at the rate things were going, Apple would not be in proper shape for a minimum of two weeks—quite possibly four.

It’s hard to know exactly what the folks at Apple were thinking when they announced that iPad 2 would start shipping only 9 days later, but it’s obvious in retrospect that the decision carried some unusually negative consequences. There are the obvious ones—the widespread grumbles about sell-outs at various American stores, unavailability of specific models* that customers were looking for, and lingering questions as to whether international launches would be delayed. History has shown that Apple doesn’t sweat these issues much in public, always falling back on some variation of a familiar refrain: “demand is so amazing that we’re just trying to make as many as people want.” It repeated that phrase almost verbatim in a press release this morning confirming that this Friday’s iPad 2 international launch is still largely on track.

But behind the scenes, the company knows that it has serious supply problems on its hands, and that it is not only risking a loss of customer good will with 4-week online delivery dates and uncertain in-store waits, but even further issues due to the demand that international launches and scalpers are creating. Calls for an iPad 2 Inventory Tracking Tool are becoming louder, as are complaints from users who have stood in line awaiting iPad 2 supplies that seem to keep on running out. Apple hasn’t put out its typical “one million sold” announcement yet, either, which given the scope of demand would presumably have been quite fast had the company actually had sufficient units to sell.

That Apple launched the iPad 2 before it was completely ready to do so was evident in other places, too. The company sent new window displays to stores so late that some pieces were actually being installed while customers were waiting in line for the product to launch, a rare peek behind the curtain for a company that typically delights in revealing things only when they’re finished. iPad 2 boxes—and those of the Smart Cover—shipped without any reference to the “iPad 2” name, an odd omission for the detail-obsessed company. Also, the iPad 2 Dock still hasn’t arrived in stores, possibly because of last-minute packaging changes.

Compounding these issues is the iPad 2’s screen light leak problem, which may or may not have been the last-minute production issue that was reported to be screen-related and impacting pre-release supply levels. Users who have attempted to swap modestly affected iPad 2s for fully working replacements have surprisingly found that Apple has plenty of extra iPad 2’s to go around, but the swapped units have even bigger problems than the ones they returned. Perhaps this is a sign that more obviously imperfect units wound up as replacement stock for ones that were built properly from the get-go. Maybe not.

Particularly in light of Apple’s decision to go ahead with iPad 2 launches in additional countries this week, it will be interesting to see how long the supply and production issues take to resolve. Given what’s transpired so far, we’re thinking things will ease up in some territories by May or early June, before which most of the hard-core fans will have gotten their hands on iPad 2 hardware, leaving additional inventory for mainstream customers. To fulfill most of its demand, Apple may have to hold off on offering versions of the iPad 2 that need to be customized for specific carriers—such as additional CDMA partners—in order to make as many GSM and Wi-Fi versions as possible.

(* = In light of gripes from launch day buyers who were offered Verizon CDMA iPad 2s that were available but apparently unwanted, or a color/capacity choice that wasn’t the one a person preferred, we’re really wondering whether Apple will be able to pull off an integrated GSM/CDMA iPhone 5 so that it needn’t manufacture and offer 8 different versions of the phone this year—white and black, across two capacities, and split between GSM and CDMA. Hints in the iOS 4.3 code seem to suggest that there will be separate GSM and CDMA versions, but we’d bet that Apple’s been trying as hard as possible to make a universal “worldphone” happen, and only antenna engineering challenges could stand in the way.)

Readers, what do you think?