Apple's Next Move: Tablet Mac or a Tablet iPod?

I generally don't comment on rumors, but, well, let's face it, Apple is the most important company in consumer electronics today, and my phone's been ringing continually lately with press, analysts, clients, and assorted others looking for insight on what Apple is doing with regard to a tablet PC or similar product. Officially, I have no idea what Apple is doing here. But, in what appears on its way to becoming yet another worst-kept secret in tech, there are plenty of folks who seem to be hinting that they know all about this unannounced product which, again let's face it, would clearly be an important direction for the company. But there is really only one question that matters here, and it's not whether Apple is developing a tablet. Of course they are, and, if they're not, heads should be rolling in the marketing department at One Infinite Loop. Rather, the question is whether such a device should be a big iPod Touch (or even an iPhone), or a highly-mobile "netbook" Mac

Apple has a great big hole in its product line between the iPod Touch, which is really an iPhone minus the cellular radio, and the low-end MacBook, a ghastly-white plastic relic of a placeholder (who, really, would buy this when the entry-level MacBook Pro is available for just US$200 more?) that is clearly not long for this world. From a pricing perspective, this gap stretches from the US$399 32GB Touch, to the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro at US$1199 (or to the above-mentioned plastic relic starting at US$999 if you disagree with me on ghastliness or relicdom). Netbooks (or whatever other name they are currently being called) are selling really, really well, but almost all have that horrible, obsolete Windows XP on them and an unknown future WRT Win 7. Apple could thus, I believe, have a field day with a Mac product in the US$700-$900 range, business they otherwise lose today. Sure, you can get a netbook much cheaper than that, but Apple can always command a higher price because they present the impression of greater value (Microsoft's current TV advertising campaign to the contrary notwithstanding).

But note the ends of this product gap are bordered by wildly-different devices. Sure, everything runs Mac OS X, but at the low-end we have relatively closed, limited-function, media-centric, App-Store-centric device, and at the high end we have a more traditional PC that can also play all that media but which is faster in performance and much, much more open and broadly applicable. So, unless Apple comes out with two different tablets (which, to be fair, is a possibility), one of these strategies has to win. My guess is that if they go low, you'll see a device with a 7- to 9-inch screen, sold as an iPod, priced from US$500-700, and, if they go high, a tablet with a 10-12-inch screen, sold as a full Mac, priced from US$700-900, replacing the relic. And I could see either (or in fact both) being very, very successful in their respective marketplaces.

Still, again, I have no idea when such product(s) might appear, but it's practically guaranteed that one, or maybe both, will. This is a question of when, not if. And, if it's angled more towards being a Mac than an iPod, I'll buy one. I hope that helps in the decision-making process.

This story, "Apple's Next Move: Tablet Mac or a Tablet iPod?" was originally published by Network World.

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