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Firm sees ultra-portable Mac from Apple by March

Billing the subject its "Hot Topic of the Month," investment bank Piper Jaffray said Monday it believes there's a "high" likelihood Apple will announce an ultraportable Mac sometime in the next 4 to 6 months.

"The move could take place in the form of an smaller laptop and/or a tablet device using the iPhone's multi-touch technology," Sr. Analyst Gene Munster explained in a report issued to client investors. "Although we do not have firm evidence, either product would be a strategic extension of Apple's current technology base."

The ultraportable device could arrive in the form of an extension to the Cupertino-based firm's MacBook family of notebooks, Munster said, with a full keyboard and small screen of approximately 10 to 11 inches. Such an offering would be "a logical addition" to the Mac platform, he added, as any notebook with a more compact form-factor than the current 13-inch MacBooks would help Apple continue its share gains in the portable space, especially in Asia where UMPCs are more popular relative to other markets.

Alternatively, the analyst said, Apple is likely focusing a chunk of its R&D development efforts on the multi-touch technology used in the iPhone. He said an ultraportable product from this category would likely be a tablet device similar to, but slightly larger than, the iPhone.

"Such a device would likely have features and capabilities that the iPhone does not have, like data storage and file saving as well as document editing features," he wrote. "We believe Apple's multi-touch technology is slightly ahead of competitors using touch based input technology, and as such we expect Apple to leverage its multi-touch technology in future products."

In his note to investors, the PiperJaffray analyst also weighed in with some commentary on the impact of "iPhone hacking" on Apple's financials, which includes attempts by seasoned users to both install third-party applications and unlock the handsets from carrier AT&T.

A more robust set of applications would make the iPhone a slightly more attractive device, Munster agreed, but said for the majority of potential users this concept has "little to no impact" on their iPhone purchasing decision process, and therefore the issue has a minimal financial impact.

"Some of the more popular third-party applications that hackers are installing include an instant messaging application, a voice recording application, and several games," he wrote. "We believe Apple may eventually open the iPhone up to a limited amount of pre-approved applications that they would monetize via the iTunes Store, but there has been very little indication from the company that that is forthcoming."

Similarly, Munster also believes the financial impact of iPhone unlocking solutions on Apple is also marginal. While unlocking would imply that Apple is losing some of its AT&T revenue share, he believes the actual percentage is in the low single digits (at most 10 percent), and therefore is not of much significance to the company's bottom line.

"We are modeling for the [September quarter] revenue share from AT&T to be $7 million, so our estimate of unlocked iPhones would only have a [maximum] $700k impact on revenue in the quarter," he advised clients. "However, this does not account for the additional phones that are sold because they can be unlocked, which partially offsets the impact of the foregone shared revenue."

Munster maintained his Outperform rating on shares of Apple with a price target of $211.