Barclay's analyst Ben Reitzes provoked the newest round of speculation, predicting in a research note that an iOS tablet-notebook hybrid could disrupt 25-30% of the shrinking PC market. The hit to laptop and desktop sales could be similar to the damage iPads and other tablets have already wrought, Reitzes said.
This forecast paints a potentially grim picture for Microsoft, HP, Dell and other major PC players still finding their bearings in the mobile space. But let's not get carried away. An iOS-infused TV has been hotly rumored for years, but it's still the stuff of Apple fans' unrequited hopes. The same might end up being true of the alleged plus-sized iPad.
Indeed, CEO Tim Cook has spoken critically of laptop-tablet hybrids. He dismissed the devices in April, comparing them to a product that tries to be both a toaster and refrigerator. Last fall he characterized Microsoft's original Surface as compromised and confusing.
[ Take a look at the latest Surface and see what you think. See Microsoft Surface: 10 Best And Worst Changes. ]
Then again, the iPad Mini has become one of Apple's most important products, even though co-founder Steve Jobs said before his death that the company would never build such a device.
Is it likely a 13-inch iPad-laptop hybrid is in the offing, despite Cook's earlier misgivings? Forrester analyst David Johnson told InformationWeek in September that such a product has "interesting potential," noting that many people already use third-party keyboards with their iPads. Here are eight signs Apple is prepping a large-screen iOS product.
1. Apple's been thinking about laptop-tablet convergence for a long time.
Apple's product line doesn't include touchscreen MacBooks or convertible iPads, but the company began filing patents based on these designs long before Windows 8 or Surface tablets were on the market. The patents range from a dock that turns an iPad into an iMac, to an attachable iPad keyboard that runs on solar power, arguably an ideal accessory for a 13-inch model, as Reitzes pointed out.
Apple's knack hasn't traditionally been to invent new technologies as much as to recognize when and how to bring new tech to market -- a point Apple VP of software engineering Craig Federighi alluded to last month when he told BusinessWeek, "New is easy. Right is hard." Having clearly given convergence a lot of thought, perhaps Apple finally feels it can do hybrids right.
2. Multiple sources have claimed a 13-inch iPad is in the works.
Supply-chain rumors don't always pan out, but where there's smoke there's also often fire. Citing supply-chain sources, the Wall Street Journal reported in July that Apple was experimenting with a 13-inch iPad. Japanese website Macotakara reported in late September that a larger iPad was already in production for a planned 2014 debut, and that Taiwan-based manufacturer Quanta, a longtime Apple partner, was building them. DisplaySearch VP David Hsieh said this month that supply-chain research indicates a 12.9-inch model with 2732-by-1536-pixel resolution will arrive next year.
3. Apple reportedly is working on a power adapter for a new mobile device that will sit between current iPads and the MacBook Air.
Citing inside sources, AppleInsider reported in early September that Apple is working on a power adapter that draws more wattage than today's iPads but far less than a MacBook Air. The site said the power supply is for a new portable product that will be released in the next year. It speculated the product could be for a plus-size iPad, or perhaps even an iOS notebook -- conjecture that lines up with the aforementioned supply chain reports.
4. The A7 processor will bring desktop-class power to the iPad.
The iPhone 5s's 64-bit A7 processor is more powerful than desktop chips were just a few years ago. The 5s benefits from the extra power, but the A7 could really shine in devices with larger screens. In addition to providing more computational muscle, 64-bit processing allows a device to support far more than 4 GB of RAM. The 5s uses only 1 GB -- but a 13-inch, Retina-equipped iPad hybrid would demand much more.
5. Apple's A7 chip could allow an iPad to run PC-style apps.
If Apple introduces a larger iPad with a keyboard, more apps will have to accommodate both touch-oriented and laptop-style operation. Apple's iOS 7 documentation teases the possibility of an iOS device that runs desktop apps, noting that "the architecture for 64-bit apps on iOS is almost identical to the architecture for OS X apps, making it easy to create a common code base that runs in both operating systems."
OS X and iOS already share certain aesthetic cues, and are becoming increasingly connected via iCloud. But the documentation's tone, which superficially evokes Microsoft's Windows 8 strategy, suggests deeper convergence is in the cards. The current iPad is too different from a laptop to make a unified code base broadly appealing -- but a 13-inch iPad with attachable keyboard could be a different story.
6. An iPad hybrid could offset falling Mac sales.
Apple's MacBooks and iMacs were initially unaffected by the PC market's decline. That's no longer the case; the industry-wide slump has now stretched for six consecutive quarters, and in the most recent one, Apple's computers fared worse than the market average.
The company could bounce back in the current quarter; it just launched new iMacs and is about to release OS X Mavericks, the redesigned Mac Pro and, presumably, new MacBook Pros with Intel's energy-efficient Haswell chips. But if Apple senses that its OS X machines are poised for long-term decline, a 13-inch iPad could make sense. It could cannibalize MacBook sales, but based on Reitzes' estimates, it could also sell more units than all the current MacBooks combined, maintain high profit margins and potentially discourage the sales of scores of Windows hybrids.
7. The revamped iWork suite might signal an iPad that is more productivity oriented.
Apple recently made its mobile productivity software iWork available as a free download with new iOS 7 devices. The company will also release new desktop versions later this year, as well as a cloud-based version that's been in public preview for the last several months.
Several possibilities could explain Apple's iWork motivation. The company could believe its ecosystem needs productivity software to compete with Microsoft and Google. iWork also pressures Microsoft to make its eventual release of Office for the iPad both excellent and aggressively priced. But if Apple wanted to prove that iOS is the best mobile platform for both work and play, a 13-inch, keyboard-equipped iPad that runs iWork could be a good start.
8. There's a demonstrated market for an iPad hybrid.
A Forrester study published over the summer found that 62% of information workers are interested in using tablets with keyboards. This interest hasn't yet propelled sales of Windows hybrid devices, which suggests two possibilities: 1) the survey overstates interest or 2) many users want keyboard-equipped tablets but prefer iOS to Windows 8 and Windows RT.
There's additional evidence of the second possibility. As Forrester analyst Johnson noted, many iPad users have already turned to third-party keyboards. There appears to be demand, in other words, for an iPad designed for both touchscreen and keyboard use, a combination the rumored 13-inch model could deliver.
Analysts also believe hybrid devices could become more popular in the enterprise, as they allow employees to have both a laptop and a tablet experience but only require IT to manage a single device. Apple doesn't currently have anything to offer these customers -- but an iPad hybrid would change that.