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Monday, January 18, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Apple Tablet In 2010??

A source familiar with Apple’s product plans says that the company plans to introduce a tablet-based device in early 2010. This is consistent with the report from Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster this morning suggesting precisely the same thing. Here’s the body of Munster’s note:

Signs Pointing To A New Mobile Device. Between indications from our component contacts in Asia, recent patents relating to multi-touch sensitivity for more complex computing devices, comments from Tim Cook on the April 22nd conference call, and Apple’s acquisition of P.A. Semi along with other recent chip-related hires, it is increasingly clear that Apple is investing more in its mobile computing franchise.

Specifically, we expect this to result in a larger (7”-10”) touchscreen tablet that will launch in 1H CY10. Additionally, Apple’s consistent message that it refuses to launch a “cheap” portable netbook, and its desire to differentiate itself in a maturing market before it’s too late (similar to the timing of iPod and iPhone), plus its gradual addition of multi-touch technology to all of its core products (iPhones, iPods and Macs) leads us to conclude this product will be a touchscreen tablet (not a netbook).

No Netbook On The Horizon; Tablet A CY10 Event. We expect Apple to fill the gap between the iPod touch and the MacBook with a new tablet device (not a netbook) priced at about $500-$700. Apple will likely leverage its multi-touch patents to differentiate its product from the typical netbook. We are anticipating a new category of Apple products with an operating system more robust than the iPhone’s but optimized for multi-touch, unlike Mac OS X. The device’s OS could bear a close resemblance to Apple’s mobile OS and run App Store apps, or it could be a modified version of Mac OS X. We expect the development of such an OS to be underway currently, but its complexity, along with our conversations with a key company in the mobile space, leads us to believe it will not launch until CY10.

Apple’s Timing In Entering New Markets. Apple launched the first iPod in Oct-01, three years after the first portable MP3 player was on the market. Likewise, the iPhone debuted in Jun-07, five years after the first BlackBerry with email and mobile phone capabilities. With both products, Apple designed devices that were differentiated enough to gain significant market share despite its later entrance into the markets. We believe Apple is observing the netbook market in a similar way, and will eventually enter with a tablet, a premium mobile computing device.

Munster’s analysis sounds extremely convincing to me. Despite rumors of an impending launch of lower-end mid-sized devices, Apple is still doing well enough in its businesses—both in terms of market share, and certainly from a margin point of view—that it is likely loath to simply give in to the pressure to throw some cheap netbook knock-off out on the market. If current economics conditions are anywhere near as bad as they are going to get, it seems Apple is powering through just fine. Why take the risk of cannibalizing more profitable product lines in the future, with a product that Steve & Co. wouldn’t be “proud of,” as they say whenever asked about netbooks by Wall Street analysts.

But taking the time to craft yet another consumer category-making product makes total sense. Until now, all the talk of mid-sized devices that are smaller than a laptop and larger than a cellphone strike me as wishful thinking by vendors. But who really needs one, and for what? I know I don’t. But if Apple comes out with a slick multi-touch-equipped device of that size, able to run thousands of Apps tuned for the form factor (not to mention play movies, or help you create your own), that’s a different story. And probably a very profitable one.