Speculation about Apple’s next big thing heats up as the rumored Jan. 26 unveiling nears

Artist's rendition. Credit: AppleInsider

Two lines of thought dominated the ongoing debate this week about what Apple’s AAPL tablet computer is and what it might be good for.

[UPDATE: Make that three lines of thought. See Antacid Tablet, below.]

The first — the tablet as an oversized iPhone — flows from a brief post in a Chinese-language microblog that gained currency primarily due to the influence of its author: Kaifu Lee, a Carnegie-Mellon trained computer scientist who headed the Apple R&D team that developed the Newton, started Microsoft’s MSFT Beijing Research Division and, after a five-month legal tug-of-war, founded Google GOOG China.

According to Lee (translation via GadgetMix):

“The Apple Tablet looks like a bigger iPhone that sports an awesome [user interface] packed in a beautiful 10.1-inch screen. The tablet combines the functions of both netbook and [Amazon’s AMZN ] Kindle. It has virtual keyboard for text entry and a webcam for video conferencing.”

The second — the tablet as something you buy instead of a MacBook — comes from a long post by Daring Fireball‘s John Gruber. Forced into a thought experiment because his sources at Apple — usually very good — seem to have disappeared behind a “cone of silence,” Gruber asks what strikes us the central question about Steve Jobs’ next big thing:

“If you already have an iPhone and a MacBook; why would you want this?”

His answer, in brief:

“Do I think The Tablet is an e-reader? A video player? A web browser? A document viewer? It’s not a matter of or but rather and. I say it is all of these things. It’s a computer.

And so in answer to my central question, regarding why buy The Tablet if you already have an iPhone and a MacBook, my best guess is that ultimately, The Tablet is something you’ll buy instead of a MacBook.

I say they’re swinging big — redefining the experience of personal computing.

It will not be pitched as such by Apple. It will be defined by three or four of its built-in primary apps. But long-term, big-picture? It will be to the MacBook what the Macintosh was to the Apple II.”

Gruber doesn’t offer an explanation of how, exactly, one would do extended typing on a virtual keyboard (AppleInsider suggests some ideas here). But for anyone interested in what Apple might be up to, Gruber’s “A Tablet” is a must-read. Get it here.

UPDATE: On Friday, ArsTechnica’s John Siracusa filed his predictions in a post entitled Antacid Tablet that takes a middle road, separating — Don Rumsfield style — the known knowns from the known unknowns. It’s another must-read. Get it here.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]