Will the Apple tablet be a full-fledged computer?

The still hypothetical device will be a 10-or-so-inch tablet PC with a full Mac OS X operating system; or it will merely be a larger-screen version of the current iPod Touch.

This 13-inch MacBook has been modded into tablet form.

With all the crystal-ball-watching over the seemingly imminent Apple tablet, one issue hotly debated around the CNET offices, but infrequently mentioned elsewhere, is the hypothetical device's status as a mobile computer.

There are two schools of thought on this: either the Apple tablet (or iSlate, or whatever it ends up being called) will be a 10-or-so-inch tablet PC with a full Mac OS X operating system; or it will merely be a larger-screen version of the current iPod Touch, which has a closed, limited phone-like OS.

The former would mean it could very likely run any software you'd run on a MacBook, from Firefox to Photoshop, and maybe even install Windows 7 via Boot Camp or Parallels. The later points to a hermetically sealed ecosystem, where apps would have to be approved and sold through an official app store (as in iTunes).

Initially, at least, the scant evidence hinted at the Apple tablet being akin to a touch-screen, keyboardless version of the company's current laptops. After all, convertible tablet laptops are, if not common, than at least easy to find . While mostly intended for medical, education, or other specialized markets, there are a handful of consumer-oriented ones, such as HP's TouchSmart series.

There is even already a tablet version of the 13-inch MacBook you can buy. It's from a company called Axiotron, which takes apart stock MacBooks and rebuilds them as tablets, with a touch screen and stylus. We reviewed one a couple of years ago and found it to be an interesting, if expensive, alternative for tablet-loving Apple fans.

The last several rounds of Apple tablet rumors, however, point more decisively towards an iPhone or iPod Touch style device. The Financial Times reports that Apple is planning a press event on January 26 in San Francisco, while the Silicon Alley Insider claims several app developers have been asked to prepare large-screen versions of their current iPhone apps.

While the recent rumors all seem to point towards a device without a full PC-style operating system, the purported 10-inch screen of the Apple tablet may create a different set of psychological expectations from consumers. After all, that's the size of most Netbook PCs, which, despite costing as little as $299, offer the same (or in some cases, the "Starter" versions of) Windows XP or Windows 7 as full-size laptops, and which can install and run virtually software (with the possible exception of power-hungry apps like 3D games and video editing suites).

And, even with single-core Intel Atom CPUs, a 10-inch Netbook can run multiple apps at once--something currently not allowed (with a few exceptions) on the iPhone/iPod Touch platform.

Would a 10-inch device without that added flexibility feel unduly crippled or underpowered? Is an OS X-powered tablet the right way for Apple to go? Sound off in the comments section below.

 

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