Weeks away from Apple’s mid-summer party known as the WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference) and speculation is rampant regarding new product releases. One particular piece of gossip has scurried around more than others, and I think it deserves closer inspection – it’s a device that’s increasingly being known as the Apple Media Pad.

According to rumour and speculation – which Apple famously doesn’t comment on – the Media Pad is an oversized iPod touch. And what would Apple gain from creating an über iPod touch?

Well the theory goes that the über touch would take on two markets at once. The e-reader market that Apple CEO Steve Jobs has categorically denied any interest in; and the netbook market that Apple appears to loathe.

On electronic books, Steve Jobs, had this to say to the New York Times: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad [Amazon’s new e-reader] is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” Jobs continued: “Forty per cent of the people in the US read one book or less last year. The whole concept is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

(I would point out that this stands in stark contrast to my wholly unempirical evidence of standing on the London tube every morning, where whole carriages of commuters stare furiously at books, free papers, mobile phones, and – increasingly – iPhones, rather than engage in eye contact.)

And on netbooks, Jobs’ had this to say on an earnings call: “We don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk.” Ouch. Take that Acer with your 189 per cent year-on-year volume increase.

But I’ve also yet to find a netbook I like. Sorry guys, I’ve really tried. I know they’re popular; but they are terrible. Even the really good ones are terrible. Even when you’ve installed a non Windows-based operating system such as Ubuntu for netbooks they’re terrible. Even when you’ve installed a non-Windows and non-Ubuntu OS, to create an unholy Mac OS X licence-breaking device known as a Hacintosh, the experience is still terrible. The screen’s too small, the keyboard’s too small; they all feel cheap and nasty – especially nasty. The best thing you can say about netbooks is that they’re cheap.

Apple probably makes enough money from each MacBook sale to throw in a netbook if it wanted to. It may only have 4-5 per cent of the laptop market, but it made $10.17 billion revenue in the first quarter, and $8.16 billion in the second quarter of this year. According to sources it has close to $30 billion sitting in the bank.

I think Apple could do more in this area – especially as it’s starting to look like Scrooge McDuck sitting atop a mountain of gold – but from a purely commercial point of view it’s easy to see why Apple wouldn’t want to move from selling $1,000 laptops to $500 ones.

Anyway, let’s not take public dismissals too seriously. Following Jobs’ protestations, Macworld readers wryly pointed out: “So we can expect a netbook and e-reader later this year then”. Apple has a history of dismissing products (MP3 players, for example) and then launching them with aplomb.

A mockup of the Media Pad

Thinking different?
So back the the Media Pad, remember, there was the story in March that the iPhone 3.0 has identifiers in the code at least four, and possibly six new iPhone-type devices. Including two oddities: iProd 0.1 and iFPGA. Then there was a Business Week story that stated Apple was in talks with Verizon Wireless to distribute two new iPhone-like devices (an iPhone lite and a media pad). Then the Chinese newspaper Commercial Times claimed that Apple had struck deals with manufacturers to create a touch-screen Mac product.

I’m actually in the mood for another e-reader and am tempted by the Sony device, even though it’s not actually Mac compatible (there are shareware hacks). If Amazon managed to get the Kindle over here I’d empty my bank account for it.

But would the Media Pad use e-reader screen technology? Something tells me instead it’d have a full LCD screen like the iPhone or iPod touch. But then it wouldn’t be an e-reader; it’d be a tablet PC. Only it’d run stripped-down software. I imagine the screen and interface would have to be changed too; unless you wanted to tap huge app-sized icons with your stubby little fingers.

Then the question looms, should it have a keyboard? Well yes, and no. If it has a keyboard it’s no longer a giant iPod touch. It’s a touch-screen MacBook. Interesting, for sure, but would it be cheap enough? Anyway, this is where we depart from the reality train into wishful thinking.

So what’s against this device. Well, the current hierarchy is desktop, laptop, smartphone. A smartphone is small enough to fit in your pocket, but not big enough to work on. A laptop is big enough to fit in a bag, but the screen and power is less than a desktop. In my mind, a netbook is really a variation of a laptop – just cheaper and smaller.

The problem with the current inception of the Media Pad is that it’s actually the worst of both worlds; not the best. It’s too big to fit in a pocket, yet too small and fiddly to work on. Good for video, but not so good for long-term reading of text; okay for typing emails but not so hot for writing a report.

I’m trying to get excited by the Media Pad, and, in truth, I’m really keen for Apple to do something different again. Just to stir things up. But no matter how I spin it I just end up thinking, ‘Nah... I’d just keep the iPhone for my pocket and MacBook Air for when I want to do some work on the move’.

But then, Apple is the company that likes surprises. I hope I’m surprised on the 8 June. I hope Apple does something truly different.