Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.
Much of the speculation around an "iPad" -- a rumored 10" Apple tablet -- has portrayed it as an Amazon Kindle-killer or a large-screen iPod touch, but there's a strong case that such a product could effectively serve as a replacement for – or a compelling complement to -- Apple's non-platform sleeper Apple TV.
Apple faces a dilemma in moving iPhone apps to a larger screen size or higher resolution. It must either scale them (ugly), ask developers to create a large-screen version (cumbersome), or run them in a window (which would beg some level of multitasking at least beyond what the iPhone OS does today). Not only that, but a 10" device is simply inconvenient for some of the iPhone's apps. Just try focusing on the road with a 10" navigation screen suctioned to your windshield.
The base version of Apple TV is 40 GB, just a bit over the 32 GB that has been offered on the iPod touch and iPhone. By the end of the year, a 64 GB flash product could be well within reach for a flash–based iPad. That would easily store many consumers' photo libraries and a Netflix queue's worth of movies. Rumors about the "Cocktail" music experience notwithstanding, the tablet would make an excellent platform for watching and displaying video and photos. a 10" screen would be a fine fit for 720p video and the small size would mask artifacts that could show up on the 50" television. But the iPad would be even more versatile than Apple TV.
Perhaps the most popular digital tablets that are in the market today are digital picture frames. They've sold well because they've been cheap, but even companies that have had success with them believe the key to greater utilization is in connecting them. TV is becoming a more personal experience, especially for video downloaded from the iTunes store. The iPhone delivers an okay video experience (fine for YouTube) given its screen size, but it's not something most people would ideally like to watch a movie on.
Having full-time access to the screen would allow Apple to, for example, put Dashboard-like widgets on the display when it wasn't being actively used. That's something that Apple TV's walk-on role in the home theater makes more challenging. Like Apple TV, the iPad could serve as an Apple "media center extender."
The iPad would also be a great opportunity for Apple to introduce support for desktop Flash as its larger case could accommodate a more powerful processor and larger battery. Hulu's content partners would also be less likely to rally against supporting such a device since it would not compete as directly with the large-screen cable TV experience (although, that said, HDMI or DisplayPort would be a natural port for such a device).
The iPad could also be a great fit for in-vehicle video viewing. It would take about ten minutes for one of the iPod accessory companies to announce a case that allows it to be slung over a drivers' seat as an alternative to the portable DVD player. And Apple's recent embrace of stereo Bluetooth could enable backseat listening without headphone cables.
Finally, it would help Apple test the waters of the television market without having to compete head-to-head with Sony, Samsung and Vizio. An Apple television could simply be an iPad with a tuner, inputs, and programming guide. The integrated display of the iMac has made it far more more successful than the Mac mini. There's a clear opportunity for the iPad to similarly show up the Mac mini's living room cousin.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.