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apple-tablet-patent-400Sometimes a rumor lands in the VentureBeat inbox that has an inexplicable ring of truth to it. That’s the case with this post from the Quick PWN blog — pronounced “quick-pawn” — about Apple’s pending product unveiling on January 26th.

The mystery gadget, unofficially dubbed the iSlate because Apple bought the domain in 2007, is said to be a tablet-form computer. Apple patent applications show a tablet-form device in use. Taiwanese electronic parts manufacturer Innolux claims to be making 10-inch touchscreen displays for it. Whatever it is, it will be unveiled at an Apple press event a month from now.

But Quick PWN writer Hans, who won’t give his full name, says his insidery sources told him Apple’s product has a new and specific purpose: It’s a Kindle-killer, designed for reading books, magazines and news on the go, not just Web surfing and tweeting:

“Our sources have told us that the rumor about Apple launching a product with the iSlate name is true, but the product won’t be an Apple tablet, it will be an eBook reader.

apple-tablet-1“The iSlate will be a competitor to the Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook and other e-readers that are out there. Our sources have also told us that the iSlate eBook reader will run on Apple’s upcoming iPhone OS 4.0 software and will include a separate App Store for eBooks.”

I believe this for one simple reason: After years of false starts, the market for e-readers is finally hot. Amazon claims e-books outsold paper books in total dollars spent at Amazon on Christmas Day. Book and magazine publishers are the last holdouts against a fully digital media world. And although their revenues are down, they can still get people to spend $10 on a novel in digital format.

An Apple reader running the iPhone operating system would surely also read mail, surf the Web, play iTunes, and support downloadable apps. But Quick PWN’s assertion is that the new device will be marketed primarily as an e-reader. Not as a keyboardless iMac. Not as an iPhone or iPod with a bigger screen. Its key selling point will be how well it handles text, not video.

The tablet computer rumor has legs, moreso than any other besides the original iPhone. TechCrunch editor Mike Arrington, who tried to bring a tablet computer to market this past year, sold a convincing vision of what he called couch computing for his Crunchpad tablet, which may ship in 2010 under the name JooJoo.

But it makes more sense that instead of trying to invent a whole new product niche in the style of Crunchpad, Apple would try to steal an already proven market, the way the company invaded personal computers, MP3 players, TV consoles, and smartphones. Apple didn’t create these genres, but the company brings in $30 billion a year in revenue with upmarket, smartly designed entries in all of them.

One other reason the e-reader rumor resonates with me: Apple has always touted serious reading as one of its products’ core functions, whether it’s a desktop, laptop, phone or iPod. As a friend joked, “It’s not an Apple product until it can download The New York Times.”

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