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iPad guts approach to PC design, says iSuppli

The Apple iPad and like devices signal profound changes for companies that design and manufacture computers, says market researcher iSuppli.

The Apple iPad and like devices will have far-reaching consequences for computer design and manufacturing, according to market researcher iSuppli.

It all starts with a fundamental change in how the device is put together. The iPad does not follow conventional PC design because the user interface is the starting point, said Derek Lidow, chief executive at iSuppli, in a research note released on Thursday. "Apple started by designing the screen, the touch pad and the battery," he wrote. Less focus was placed on chips and where they should be designed into the system. "This design is what gives the product a unique feel and functionality," according to Lidow.

Apple released the iPad earlier this month, selling more than 300,000 its first day. Josh P. Miller/CNET

In separate but similar comments this week, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang also sees the tablet as a radical departure from PCs. Laptops have for decades put all of the major electronics under the keyboard. But the tablet changes that. "All the electronics are now being put behind the screen," he said, speaking to a group of reporters at a dinner this week. "Think of all the innovation that can take place now."

Echoing this, Lidow writes that these design changes will have profound implications for manufacturers. As shipments of the iPad are expected to rise to about 20 million in 2012 up from 7 million forecast in 2010, the "question of which companies in the supply chain will capture the profits (from tablets) will be of major importance in the coming years."

Companies that supply the touch screen assembly and the tablet's display (which, in tablets, serves as both the screen and input device) stand to become major players in the computer industry, Lidow says.

And both Huang and iSuppli see the processor--the brains of the tablet--as fundamentally different than anything used in PCs today. "The (A4) processor in the iPad is not a PC microprocessor," wrote Andrew Rassweiler, a teardown analyst at iSuppli. "This is a totally different architecture that comes as more of an extension of the iPhone/iPod line, rather than as an extension of Apple's computer line-up."

Huang's thinking is similar. The team at Nvidia that designed the Tegra processor was tasked to start from scratch and come up with a chip that consumes very little power. That's fundamentally different from the approach taken with laptop silicon, which tries--often unsuccessfully--to whittle down inherently power-hungry designs. The Tegra is being used in Microsoft's Kin smartphone and Zune HD media player. And Nvidia's next-generation Tegra 2 is expected to power tablets too, such as those coming from Dell.