SAN JOSE, Calif. Speculation is running high the day before Apple Inc. is expected to roll out a tablet computer some say could help launch a new category. But it's unclear if the key component needed to drive the category forward—a high-resolution, low-power color display—is ready for prime time.
Apple is widely anticipated to roll out an iSlate or iPad system that could act as an e-book reader as well as be able to play movies, check email and act as a digital picture frame when not in use. One analyst said such a product could become a third mainstream mobile device after the notebook PC and smart phone.
Tablets will complement and synch over personal area networks with laptops that create content and smart phones that handle personal messaging. The tablets could be shared by several users, providing "e-book services when in portrait mode and media services when held in landscape mode," said J. Gerry Purdy, principal analyst with MobileTrax LLC.
Thus the tablets will mainly be used to consume content, probably delivered over Web-based cloud services.
In a conference call Monday when it reported record quarterly profits, Apple's dodged questions about whether it believes it can successfully kick off a new mobile product category as significant as notebooks or smart phones. Whether Apple can be successful depends on what price points it hits and what display technology it uses, said, Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group.
"If it's in $1,000 range as rumored, it will be a problem, but at $750 it could be a win," said Enderle.
"The biggest problem is the display," said Enderle. "They've locked up a lot of LCD and reportedly OLED display capacity for this product, but neither one is ideal," he added.
Enderle said a media-ready e-book needs a display with the kind of high resolution, low battery power provided by the grayscale displays of E-Ink. Corp. used in many e-books. However it also has to have the rich color and fast response times promised by companies such as Taiwan's Pixel Qi or Qualcomm MEMS Technologies, Inc. with its Mirasol displays.
Such displays "won't be ready for a product like this until later this year," said Enderle, speculating Apple will roll out and LCD or OLED model Wednesday quickly followed by one with a new display technology late this year.
"LCDs and OLEDs can handle video, but they wash out in daylight, are not great for reading e-books and are hard on battery life," Enderle said.
A Pixel Qi executive said the company is ready to serve designs like the rumored Apple tablet.
"We have already started production of 10-inch screens," said Mary Lou Jepsen, chief executive of Pixel Qi. "They will be in stores soon, but only our customers (the device makers) can say exactly when; and we can't tell you who are customers are because of our non-disclosure agreements," she said in an email exchange,
"This makes it a bit more interesting," said Enderle. "This will make [Apple] ready for a generation-two design, but I still think the design is set for a generation one" using LCD and OLEDs, he added.