Apple may have turned its nose up at the netbook market, but that doesn't mean it's ignoring the void between its $400 iPod touch (32GB) and $1,000 MacBook. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster believes Cupertino will launch a touchscreen tablet, priced in the $500 to $700 range, in the first half of 2010.

Rumors of an iPod-like tablet have been swirling for months, with some speculating that Apple is developing a large-screen iPod touch--say, a 7- to 9-inch touchscreen device--that would be large enough for HD movies and maybe a few desktop-style apps. Such a device would provide a better gaming experience than the iPod touch too.

But please don't call it a netbook, a bargain-bin class of laptop that Apple execs have dissed as "junky."

There's no smoking gun in the latest report, but it does appear as though Apple is up to something. As reported by CNN, Munster's sleuthing led him to conclude that an Apple tablet is only months away.

The signs include: Apple's recent interest in chip designers, including the company's acquisition of low-power chipmaker PA Semi a year ago; Apple's efforts to add multi-touch features to its core products, including iPods, iPhones, and Macs; and the quintessentially Apple need to differentiate itself in an established market. (Think iPods, iPhones, Macs, etc.)

Admittedly, Munster's evidence is pretty slim. But when combined with other reports, including one from the Chinese-language Commercial Times that says Taiwan-based Wintek will soon supply touch panels for an upcoming Apple subnote, an touchscreen tablet seems very possible.

One thing's for sure: An Apple tablet, subnote, or whatever you want to call it, won't copy the successful-if-unspectacular netbook formula of a shrunken laptop with a cramped keyboard and tiny screen.

There's certainly a market for a portable media player larger than the iPod touch, iPhone, or other smart phones. But what would people pay for such a device? If Apple's sweet spot is $700, the alleged tablet would need some fairly robust wireless communications and productivity tools too.

Apple would be foolish to ignore the growing netbook market, which is attracting more and more potential laptop buyers. Odds are, it won't.