By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
January 1, 2010

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

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]

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