1-in-5 consumers likely to buy Apple tablet, poll says

Huge hit in the offing, says ChangeWave, cites similarities with Apple move to Intel

Apple is looking at a huge hit in its rumored tablet, with nearly one-in-five American consumers saying that they're likely to buy the device, a research analyst said today.

"It looks very bullish for Apple," said Paul Carton, research director at ChangeWave Research, which polled more than 3,300 U.S. consumers earlier this month on their technology purchase plans for the next 90 days. "There's a wave of demand out there that supersedes what we usually see in the computer electronics industry. It's very possible for this to be a huge product for Apple, and to have huge ripple effects in the PC and e-book reader industries."

The ultra-secretive Apple has not confirmed that it will unveil a tablet -- which Carton referred to as the "iSlate," a name some have claimed will be the ultimate name -- but it has sent invitations to the press for an event next Wednesday in San Francisco. Most analysts expect that Apple will reveal the long-talked-about tablet then, but not ship the device until March at the earliest.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, provided more detail about Apple's tablet, including the company's strategy to use it to become an even more important content middleman.

Carton assumes that the tablet will fit the speculation consensus of a 10-in. screen, a 3D user interface, a virtual keyboard, WiFi connectivity, and integration with iTunes and Apple's App Store. (Some experts disagree with, among other things, the likely screen size.)

Of the consumers surveyed, 4% said they were "very likely" to buy an Apple tablet fitting that description when it's available, while another 14% reported they were "somewhat likely" to purchase the device.

Those numbers are identical to the purchase plans polled by ChangeWave in 2005, during the interval between Apple CEO Steve Jobs' mid-2005 announcement that Macs would soon use Intel processors, and the early 2006 unveiling of those new machines.

"The last major move that Apple had on the Mac side was the shift to Intel," Carton said. "Pre-launch demand for that was strong, and history proved it was one of the great moves by Apple. That we see the same pre-launch excitement for an Apple tablet suggests that this is a similar potential for huge success."

Carton's survey also asked consumers what they would pay for a tablet: 75% of those interested in the device said they'd plunk down $500 or more, while 37% reported they would spend over $700. As with everything else about the Apple table, price is a movable target: Some, including the Wall Street Journal have recently taken to citing $1,000 as the likely price tag.

But nothing, even for Apple, is certain, Carton cautioned. "There's one giant qualifier," he warned. "Before the iPhone came out, everyone wondered whether you'd be able to get a dial tone. With the tablet, we first have to see what it actually looks like, and then consumers have to touch it, feel it, play with it and pass judgment. Because if the product doesn't work, then Apple's in trouble."

The constant drumbeat of tablet talk has, Carton continued, caused some potential Mac notebook buyers to delay their purchases. "No one wanted to buy the last [PowerPC] Mac in 2005-2006," said Carton, referring an August 2005 survey that showed 37% of potential buyers saying that they would delay their decision pending the appearance of Intel-based machines. "We don't expect anything like that here, but there does seem to be a little holding back by consumers to see what the tablet actually is."

That's one of the reasons why Apple -- which has seen this phenomenon before -- keeps such a tight lid on its plans, Carton argued. "They don't want to see any more dip in demand [for their existing products] than they can get away with," he said.

"Apple has to meet these heightened consumer expectations of the tablet," Carton said. "But its cup is very full, the critical mass of demand is there. And the numbers forecast a highly successful launch."

Computerworld's Seth Weintraub will live blog from Apple's event next Wednesday.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, send e-mail to gkeizer@ix.netcom.com or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .

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