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Apple has long been in the set-top box market; you can already buy Apple TV for $99. But would Apple ever manufacture a set of its own? Apple, after all, has been trending upwards where screen size is concerned. The iPhone swelled to the size of the iPad. Could the iPad now grow into the iTV?

VentureBeat thinks it’s “almost certain” that Apple is already working on a device, citing “multiple sources in Silicon Valley.” A venture capitalist who used to be on TiVo’s board, Stewart Alsop, thinks it’s a likelihood, and even predicts a 2012 launch date; others have chimed in, suggesting 2013 might be more likely. And analyst Gene Munster claims, again via VentureBeat, to have an inside source at Apple backing up Munster’s pet theory (Munster previously thought Apple would release an iTV by 2011; he’s since backed off that idea). As Munster said in 2009, “The argument that Apple will not enter the television market because prices have declined by ~70% in the past three years… is a similar argument used to conclude Apple would not enter the cell phone market, given phones had seen similar price declines.” We all know how that turned out.

Alsop, for his part, predicted an era of 15-inch and 19-inch touchscreen iTV’s in the near future. But that image underscores how far-fetched an Apple-branded TV set would be. Touchscreens are only useful on small devices held at arm’s length, where you can actually see what you’re touching. A touchscreen of that size seems an absurdity; consumers would have to step back continually, like a painter with his palette, just to see what they’re doing.

Even if analysts’ imaginations are getting away from them, might an iTV (without a touchscreen, say) make sense? After all, doesn’t an Apple TV set-top box–which already uses iOS–achieve most of what an iTV itself might achieve? Yes and no. A set-top box has many capabilities, but it doesn’t necessarily have the same ease of use and cross-app fluidity that an Apple-branded TV set would afford. As Don Relsinger of SlashGear recently wrote, “Last night, I was sitting in my living room thinking about what I should watch, and I decided to browse Netflix. But rather than fire up my Apple TV … I simply clicked over to it from the apps marketplace available through my HDTV.” It was, he explained, “a decision based solely on the fact that I didn’t want to change inputs.”

Markets are made or broken because of tiny inconveniences like that–the user who can’t be bothered to take the half-second to switch inputs. Ultimately, the owner of the TV set does hold a certain power over the user, something Steve Jobs, whose genius was to put himself in the mind of the user, surely has realized. This is why, despite all the reasons why it wouldn’t make sense–the hallucinatory visions of analysts, and the very sound point that TV sets are a low-margin business and a low-frequency purchase–Munster’s instincts, and sources, might just be right.

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