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Apple tablet spooks world of PCs

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Opinion That long-awaited Apple tablet/netbook/media-pad/ebook/whatever has yet to be confirmed let alone offered for sale, and it's already scaring the bejesus out of the competition.

And for good reason.

As we reported earlier today, an unnamed "veteran analyst" who claims to have had the rare honor of actually laying hands on the enigmatic device told (paid subscription required) Barron's that "It's close enough now to a final design that in Asia, there's no other product in the waiting room or in the bullpen."

For those of you unfamiliar with the Great American Pastime, the bullpen is where baseball pitchers - that's Yank for bowlers - warm up before entering a game.

In other words, possible competitors in the t/n/m/e/w space are holding their fire, cooling their jets, and lying low.

Barron's veteran analyst goes on to say that "There are dozens of ODMs [original device makers] making products for Lenovo and other PC makers that are all waiting to see what the Apple product is."

How times have changed. It wasn't that long ago that Apple was struggling to stay relevant in the personal computer market. Then came the one-two punch of the iPod and the iPhone, and Apple transformed itself from an also-ran in the computer space to the 800-pound gorilla of consumer electronics.

It's not that other companies haven't tried to knock Apple down a peg. They've tried - and they've failed.

"iPod killers" have come and gone - most notably Microsoft's born-under-a-bad-sign Zune, which some analysts recently suggested that Redmond put out of its misery.

"iPhone killers" have attempted to dethrone the überpopular smartphone. But RIM's BlackBerry Storm met with tepid reviews and Palm's Pre, which - although a worthy competitor - has failed to slow the iPhone juggernaut.

Proof? Apple sold 5.2 million iPhones in its last quarter and is projected by at least one analyst to move 6.8 million of them in the current quarter.

Neither Palm nor Sprint have released the Pre's numbers, but even the most optimistic estimates put them at well under a half-million.

And now comes word from Barron's unnamed veteran analyst that possible t/n/m/e/w competitors are shaking in their Asian boots, holding their product plans in abeyance, waiting to see what Apple's Next Big Thing might be.

And - according to the analyst - they shouldn't have long to wait: the t/n/m/e/w will be announced in September and ship in November at a price estimated to be between $699 and $799.

Rumors converge on the device being a 10-inch, touch-screen-based item - essentially a jumbo iPod touch. However, exactly how Apple will position the device if - when? - it begins its holiday marketing push is not yet known.

Barron's analyst provides one hint, saying that the t/n/m/e/w's high-definition video is "better than the average movie experience, when you hold this thing in your hands."

No matter the device's main focus, one thing is for certain: It will be intended to excite mass consumption of media, apps, and games - over which Apple will almost certainly exercise as tight a degree of control as it does with its ludicrously successful iTune Store and App Store.

After all, Apple isn't building a billion-dollar data center in North Carolina merely to process the company's payroll checks.

Say what you will about Cupertino's culture of secrecy, its heavy-handed gatekeeping of App Store offerings, and its at-times convoluted legal campaigns, but one thing cannot be disputed: Apple is on a roll.

And it's striking fear in the hearts of competitors. Led by rabid tablet-evangelist Bill Gates, the PC industry has spent nearly 20 years trying - and failing - to make the tablet work. But aided by the emergence of technologies such as multitouch displays and the increasing ubiquitousness of mobile broadband, we wouldn't be at all surprised if Apple finally cracked the code.

Looks like we may find out before the year is up. ®

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