Apple may ship tablet as early as March, analysts say

Gears up to sell 1M devices a month, component manufacturing sources report

Apple may unveil a 10.1-in. tablet as early as March, a pair of Wall Street analysts said today.

According to Fortune , then the Wall Street Journal and others, Oppenheimer analyst Yair Reiner cited supply chain sources Wednesday who said that Apple is gearing up to sell a million tablets a month, with the likely kick-off in March or April.

"The manufacturing cogs for the tablet are creaking into action," Reiner wrote in a note to investors, said Fortune . The Wall Street Journal ( subscription required ) also quoted from the research note: "Apple will begin ramping production in earnest in February, implying that the tablet could launch in late March or April," said Reiner.

By Reiner's calculation, Apple will need five or six weeks worth of inventory in hand before it starts selling the tablet, which would put its release deep into the first quarter of 2010 or early in the second.

Reiner also said his sources were hinting at a $1,000 price tag for the device -- higher than estimates by other analysts -- and noted that Apple has talked with U.S. book publishers about selling their wares in an App Store-style online mart, and pitched them on the same 30%-70% split it uses to divvy up iPhone application revenues. Apple collects 30% of all App Store sales revenues to fund the online outlet.

Another analyst echoed Reiner. Vijay Rakesh of ThinkEquity told the Journal that his checks with component manufacturers indicated Apple is on track to ship one to three million tablets during the first quarter of 2010.

Comments by both Reiner and Rakesh were in line with earlier reports out of Taiwan that had pegged an Apple tablet release for 2010.

"The noise level is certainly increasing," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, referring to the growing number of reports about an Apple tablet. "The market, and the technology, are ready, and the popularity of e-book readers shows that there's a moderate market for such a device."

Gottheil also said that the time frame seems on target. "It's reasonable, because the global economy is getting somewhat better and people are not quite so scared about spending money," he said.

However, Gottheil still expects Apple to price a tablet in the $600-$800 range, lower than Reiner's estimate. "That's still a luxury item," he cautioned. "PCs are a necessity, phones are a necessity, but a tablet will be, if not a luxury, then a 'nice to have.' But for a lot of people, $800 is not an enormous amount of money for something they think will be very, very convenient."

Like Reiner, Gottheil sees Apple marketing the tablet primarily, though not exclusively, as an e-book reader, something that Amazon has pioneered with its Kindle and that Barnes and Noble will enter after the holidays with its Nook.

Talk of an Apple tablet has been one of 2009's longest-lasting stories about an unannounced product, with regular rumors touting everything from price and availability date to footprint and the type of screen it will supposedly offer.

"2010 sounds like the year," said Gottheil. "All the technology is available, from the larger touch screens to lower-powered processors. It's finally at the point where the components can make a tablet that more than just good enough [and] something Apple would be proud to make."

Gottheil's reference to pride stems from Apple's repeated refusal to enter the low-priced netbook market, with the most notable comments coming from CEO Steve Jobs, who more than a year ago said, "We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk, and our DNA will not let us ship that."

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