Perspective: iPad and the keyboard -- getting inside Apple's head

Noted analyst ponders whether Apple could out-Surface Microsoft, concludes it will do so only if it thinks the category is ripe

By arming a larger iPad with a 64-bit processor and a keyboard cover, Apple could crack the nascent 2-in-1 device market -- out-Surface Microsoft and its OEM partners as they push the concept of tablet-as-notebook, notebook-as-tablet -- if it decides the effort's worthwhile, a noted analyst said today.

"Apple's not driven by what the competition does," said Tim Bajarin, founder of Creative Strategies and an industry analyst since 1981, or almost as long as Apple and Microsoft have been around. "But history says if Apple sees a segment of the market, and they believe they can improve on it, they consider it."

Bajarin was reacting to speculation that started with several Wall Street analysts trying to make sense of Apple's move to the 64-bit A7 system-on-a-chip (SoC) in the iPhone 5S, its flagship smartphone. Like the industry analysts Computerworld spoke with a month ago about the A7 and its long-term implications for the Cupertino, Calif. company, financial experts theorized that Apple could use the more powerful ARM-based processor, more system memory -- which a 64-bit CPU can address -- a keyboard and perhaps even a larger screen to transform the current iPad into a convertible device. The resulting device could entertain like a tablet and produce like an ultra-light notebook, depending on the circumstances.

More recently, other pundits -- mostly bloggers -- have picked up on the idea, adding fuel to the hypothetical fire.

"We're not picking anything up from the [supply] channel" that Apple will actually make such a move in the short- or mid-term, Bajarin cautioned. "But they do look at markets if they see potential, look at the good and the bad about something that already exists, and if they can make it better, they do."

Apple does have a market to examine in this case.

Rival Microsoft has pinned high hopes on the tablet-notebook concept, betting that its Surface line will find hordes of customers eager for a single device to replace the two they own, even promoting the Surface Pro as a substitute for both an iPad and an Apple notebook. Microsoft's OEM (original equipment manufacturing) partners, like Lenovo and Dell, have also grabbed hold of the idea and released devices, called "convertibles," "hybrids" or "2-in-1s."

Even though Microsoft hasn't convinced many that the concept is worthwhile -- in an eight-month span that ended June 30, the company recorded Surface revenue of just $853 million, or less than Apple's iPad generated in a typical two-week stretch during the second quarter -- the company will stick with it: The Redmond, Wash. firm launched its second-generation Surface devices today. The devices, which start at $449 for the Windows RT-powered Surface 2 and $899 for the Windows 8 Pro-equipped Surface Pro 2, come minus a keyboard cover, -- an odd omission considering the use model. The keyboards cost between $80 and $130, putting a 64GB Surface Pro with the Touch Cover at $1,029, or close to double the current ASP (average selling price) of a Windows 8 touchscreen notebook.

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