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Given the launch of Apple’s iPad tablet earlier this month, it’s not surprising that analysts on the company’s earnings call today were trying to get some insight into how big a hit the device will be. That’s not just important for Apple, but also the developers looking at the iPad as a new platform for their applications.

Apple didn’t share any numbers about early iPad sales, since it was only available for preorder during the earnings period. Chief operating officer Tim Cook said that before the launch, the company had “what we thought were high hopes, and [the iPad] has exceeded those.” He also emphasized that Apple sees the iPad as a completely new category of device, one with the potential of major products like the iPod and the iPhone — in contrast with Apple TV, a device that Apple still classifies as “a hobby.”

Citing chief executive Steve Jobs, Cook said the iPad exists between the smartphone and the laptop, so the key to its success is doing “something better than either of those.” One analyst asked if the iPad might take sales away from low-end netbook devices (a market that Google will be moving into with its Chrome OS netbook operating system). Cook has disparaged netbooks in the past, and he did the same today.

“I’m the wrong person to ask,” he said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. An iPad and a netbook, it’s sort of a 100 to 0. I can’t think of a single thing a netbook does well.”

As for whether the iPad might take away sales from Apple’s own devices, like the MacBook or the iPod Touch, Cook said there was no sign of that in Apple’s strong sales numbers for the past quarter, though he acknowledged that might change now that the iPad isn’t just an announced product, but something that’s actually available for sale.

On another topic, Cook declined to offer much clarity about whether Apple plans to continue its exclusive relationship with AT&T, where iPhones sold in the United States must run on AT&T’s network. There has been speculation that Apple will add support for Verizon this summer. Cook said that there are only three major markets (the U.S., Germany, and Spain) where Apple sells the iPhone with an exclusive mobile carrier, and in every other case moving off exclusivity has accelerated sales. So it’s a no-brainer, right?

“That doesn’t mean we view that as a formula that works in every single case,” Cook said. “That’s how we’re learning so far, that’s the result that we’ve seen so far, but we think very carefully about each of these sets of countries.”

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