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Would $100 iPod compete or cannibalize?

Analysts are split over the plausibility of rumors that Apple Computer will announce a $100 iPod. Some, meanwhile, muse that an Apple media center could be coming soon to beat Microsoft to the punch.

With rumors rife that Apple Computer will unveil a $100 music player at Macworld Expo next month, analysts are split on the likelihood--and wisdom--of such a move.

The widely reported rumors, which Apple declined to address, suggest that the company will unveil an inexpensive iPod that will cover the end of the market dominated by cheaper MP3 players from Creative, Rio and Dell.

The risk in such a move would be undercutting brisk sales of iPods, which now range in price from $299 for a 10GB drive to $499 for a 40GB drive. In Apple's fourth quarter, ended Sept. 27, sales of the iPod generated $121 million in revenue, up 9 percent from the prior quarter and 128 percent from a year ago. The company has said the iPod business is profitable.

"I don?t think Apple currently needs to sell a $100 iPod at risk of cannibalizing sales of existing models and sacrificing gross margins," said Tim Deal, analyst with Technology Business Research in Hampton, N.H. "Apple already has the market lead, so I don't see the need for (the $100 version) when people are buying $299 and $399 models."

Calls to major Apple retailers, including Best Buy and Apple Stores both online and off, yielded no knowledge of a cheaper iPod coming down the pike.

Still, other industry analysts think Apple will find more benefit than risk in a low-end iPod, which some expect to be flash memory-based.

"At $100, they would make excellent penetration into the flash market," said Ross Rubin, an analyst with eMarketer in New York City. "If the rumors are true about mini-iPods, it's a great opportunity for them to extend their brand toward a more-affordable player. Apple hasn't been the value leader in digital music. They've been the high-end. But they have stolen the category away from the Rio brand."

Other rumors suggest Apple will introduce new colors or perhaps replaceable skins for the iPod. And some analysts speculate that the company might announce--if not at this coming Macworld then later in the year--a media player for music and movies. Microsoft has detailed its plans for such a device, and products already exist from RCA and Archos.

"There's little question in my mind Apple will put out a portable media player this year (2004)," said Rob Enderle, analyst with the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif. "It's important to (Apple Chief Executive) Steve (Jobs) to get there first."