Apple Tablet: Super E-Reader or Super Mini-Computer?

It's still about a month before most people expect Apple to unveil its new Tablet -- a 10-inch diagonal screen that'll work just like an iPod Touch. Or will it? Nobody knows for sure, but that doesn't mean it isn't fun to round up all the rumors and spend our Friday afternoon imagining how much better life would be if all knowledge were receivable through a shimmering touch-sensitive slate.

What will it do?
It should at least perform all the functions of an iPod Touch. That means a color touch-sensitive screen that is good for playing music, storing videos and photos and connecting to the Internet over a wifi network to download a programs from the App Store.

But at 10-inches diagonal, analysts suspect Apple is making a play at two markets, at least. The first is the E-Reader market, currently dominated by Amazon Kindle. Apple could have an advantage by expanding iTunes to sell books (perhaps with a chapter-by-chapter option for anthologies and textbooks), and its large, color screen would be perfect for reading magazines and books with illustrations.

The second market Apple might gun for is the netbook market, currently dominated by PC makers. Netbooks are cheap, small laptops that run the simplest programs, and mostly online. Apple currently offers no computer under $1000, which many analysts see as a major downside to its laptop buffet. A Tablet with expanded memory could potentially allow buyers to consider it a meaningful -- and gorgeous -- alternative to a mainstream netbook.

How much will it cost?
Original cost estimates ran as high as $900 -- which would be essentially the cost of the cheapest Apple laptop, the Macbook. Most analysts think a price around $800 will make it extremely difficult for the Tablet for find a market. But today I read an analyst who predicted that a $600 price point could net Apple $1.2 billion in Tablet sales in the first year. If the device is subsidized by AT&T or Verizon, that could bring the cost down to $500.

But will we buy it?
I won't. I love my little iPod Touch and I see no reason to buy its big daddy version for half-a-thousand dollars. Piper Jaffray, the financial analysts making waves today with his breathless $1.2 billion prediction, is calling the Tablet a viable alternative for netbookers who want a highly mobile device that will let them get online fast, and play music and movies.

It's true that a lot of people can already get online fast and listen to music? First, there's the iPhone. Second, as I've written a couple times before, with a Verizon MiFi (a wireless business card-sized device that creates a wifi cloud) and a iPod Touch, we can already access the Internet and play music. The advantage of the Tablet is its size, which will unquestionably deliver higher quality web browsing, better movie watching, and probably book reading. But it remains to be seen whether Apple will market the product as a serious machine for the business man on the go...or just the coolest, sleekest most touchable entertainment system you can fit in your luggage pocket.