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Thursday, May 21, 2009, 05:50 am PT (08:50 am ET)

Apple to answer netbook market with $500-$700 tablet - report

With a conventional netbook clearly out of the question, researchers for Piper Jaffray said Thursday there's mounting evidence to suggest Apple next year will introduce its own take on the market in the form of a tablet-based device that will sell for $700 or less.

"Between indications from our component contacts in Asia, recent patents relating to multi-touch sensitivity for more complex computing devices, comments from [chief operating officer] 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," analyst Gene Munster and his team wrote in lengthy research note to clients.

More specifically, the analyst said these investments will likely culminate with the launch of a touch-screen tablet with a display somewhere between 7- and 10-inches at a special event sometime in the first half of 2010. Such a move, he added, would be consistent with management's comments that Cupertino-based company has no interest in catering to the existing segment for "cheap" miniaturized notebooks and its spoken desire to differentiate in a market currently dominated by cramped computers with razor thin margins and a subpar user experience.

Thus far, Munster's contacts in the component supply chain have not seen a prototype of the device but say there's ongoing discussions between the company and its suppliers about the parts that will eventually be required to build the product.

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 and the $999 MacBook. He expects that it will be driven by a proprietary microprocessor designed in-house by engineers Apple adopted in the acquisition of P.A. Semi and others it's known to have hired in recent months.

Apple has also been consistent in its communications that software will play a vital role in any and all of its efforts to achieve success in the mobile space, and therefore Munster anticipates that the tablet will run an operating system more robust than the iPhone's but optimized for multi-touch, unlike Mac OS X. He envisions a new "hybrid" piece of software that would meld traits from both its Mac-based OS and the one that runs on both the iPhone and iPod touch.

"The device's OS could bear a close resemblance to Apple's iPhone OS and run App Store apps," the analyst wrote. "Apple could possibly introduce a second screen resolution into the iPhone OS software development kit (SDK), enabling developers to build apps specifically for the larger tablet device." The larger screen real estate offered by a tablet could also pave the way for more than one iPhone application to run simultaneously in unaltered form.

"Key apps, like Safari and Mail, could make use of the larger screen resolution, making Apple's tablet appealing for more extended use, but the company could continue to leverage its primary asset in mobile computing, the App Store, in this scenario," he explained.

Alternatively, Munster said Apple may be working on a customized version of Mac OS X for traditional computers that would be optimized for its multi-touch platform. Such an effort would be extensive and time consuming, even if it's already underway, and therefore the analyst believes it may not be ready for consumption until sometime next year.

"In other words, we expect the end result of the expected product to be launched later but with more dramatic differentiation than the Street is expecting," he wrote. "Another important possibility for the tablet that we expect Apple to launch in 2010 is that of wireless carrier subsidies."

Apple has become all too familiar and rather comfortable with subsidy pricing on its iPhone 3G, and Munster believes the company may take a similar approach to sales of the tablet. He also points to recent media reports about ongoing talks with Verizon wireless, which lead him to believe the company "could include an integrated mobile data feature such as 3G wireless into the device and partner with AT or Verizon to subsidize the device together with a contract for a wireless data plan."

The Piper Jaffray analyst also told clients that a tablet device could pave the way for Apple to get more serious about eBooks and give devices like the Kindle and Kindle DX from online retailer Amazon.com some unwanted competition.

"While we do not expect this to be a core selling point for the device, it would make sense for Apple to develop an electronic reading app for the device (and possibly for iPhones and iPod touches too) along with digital books sold on the iTunes Store," he wrote.

Munster maintained his Buy rating and $180 price target on shares of Apple.