Apple tablet speculation rekindled in Wall Street report

The rumor that Apple is preparing for 2010 a tablet-like netbook with a 7- to 10-inch multi-touch screen and a price tag of less than $700 has gained a new lease on life, based on a Wall Street analyst's new report, cited by

Slideshow: Rise of the netbook

It's a bold prediction considering that as recently as April, Apple COO (and acting CEO) Tim Cook dismissed the current generation of cramped, low-margin, mainly Windows-based netbooks as "junky" hardware that can't deliver the "consumer experience" the Mac OS offers.

It's also not a new prediction, though at least some of the evidence cited by Piper Jaffray in support of it may be.

In March, Michael Jones at said the tablet netbook rumor circulating then was the most interesting but also the least credible. Computerworld's Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols told readers to "get over" hoping for an Apple netbook, because one would never, ever be built, though "there may be a tablet-sized iPhone/iTouch, but that's an entirely different kettle of fish." Vaughan-Nichols noted that all the then-current rumors about such a device were based on a single story that referenced a Chinese publication, which cited an Asian touch display-maker admitting it was working with Apple on "new products."

Vaughan-Nichols' colleague, Michael Elgan, cited the same Digitimes story as the basis for his contention that Apple would ship a larger, "folding iPhone."

Despite the drawbacks mentioned by Apple's Cook, netbooks are the fastest-growing segment of the notebook computer market, and are starting to draw the interest of corporate users.

But a Mac OS-based, multi-touch "nettablet" would be an entirely different animal. And it would be a way to make Apple's growing investment in its "mobile computing franchise" pay off, according to a research note prepared for clients by Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster, with other researchers. This investment priority is evident, according to Munster, based on information gleaned from Asian component suppliers, recent Apple patents for multi-touch technology "for more complex computing devices," recent comments by Apple's Cook, the acquisition of silicon designer P.A. Semi, and recent chip-related staff hires.

A Mac tablet, even with a relatively small touchscreen, would offer the kind of technological distinctiveness that's an Apple hallmark, the report suggests. Munster conceded that the component vendors on whom he relies have not seen any prototype touch tablets. But the AppleInsider account adds that Munster says these vendors have been in discussions with Apple about the parts needed to build one.

"For his part, the analyst believes the device will end up retailing somewhere in the range of $500 - $700, bridging the gap between the $399 iPod Touch [an iPhone without the cellular modem] and the $999 MacBook," according to AppleInsider.

The even thinner, sleeker MacBook Air shows the kind of compactness and lightness Apple might be able to introduce in a small touch-based tablet, though the Air comes with a very high premium, starting at $1,800.

Munster speculates that a Mac touch tablet would have a hybrid operating system, blending more robust features of the full Mac OS with the multi-touch support found in the version running on the iPhone. A second screen-resolution spec introduced in the iPhone SDK would enable iPhone developers to build applications for the larger device, even as multiple iPhone apps run unchanged on the Mac tablet. Apple's online App Store would be the download mechanism for tablet software as for the iPhone and iPod products.

Apple's investment in the iPhone and iPod Touch have fueled better-than-expected financial results -- despite a falloff in Mac sales -- and a dramatic gain in smartphone marketshare.

One distribution strategy for a Mac tablet would be for Apple to coordinate with cellular carriers, which could bundle a subsidized nettablet with a one- or two-year cellular data plan, Munster speculated. Apple could even integrate a cellular modem into the tablet for a given carrier's network. AT&T recently announced a similar arrangement: Later this year, it will start selling cellular-equipped netbooks from Acer, Dell and Lenovo for as low as $99 with data plans ranging from $40 to $60 a month.

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