Rumors about an "iPad" — an Apple "tablet" computer that would be similar to a large iPhone —are picking up steam.

Gene Munster, a highly respected senior research analyst at the investment firm Piper Jaffray, says representatives of an Asian component manufacturer told him that they had received orders from Apple for parts to build a tablet computer — a project code-named "Touch."

The tablet, Munster says, would most likely sell for between $500 and $700, have a 10-inch touch screen, and use an operating system similar to that of the iPhone.

Like an iPhone, it would have music, movies, e-mail, and Web browsing capabilities. It could also compete with the Amazon.com's Kindle as an e-reader, with Apple selling digital books, newspapers and magazines through its iTunes store.

Munster believes that applications would be sold through the Apple app store, but that the tablet's larger screen would allow multiple applications to run simultaneously.

He declined to release specifics about the Asian parts maker. "I don't want attribution back to this company because Apple would probably fire them," he said.

Spokesmen for Apple Computer did not return e-mails and calls for comment.

Some Mac experts are skeptical of the rumors, pointing out that they have been circulating since 2003 — only to be proven wrong every time.

"This probably sets a precedent for how long [a rumor] has been running," said Stefan Constantinescu, an editor of IntoMobile.com.

He said he was wary despite Munster's "fantastic reputation" regarding Apple rumors because past claims about tablets had also referenced Asian parts suppliers. For instance, he said, the Taiwanese news site DigiTimes reported in 2003 that "Quanta had landed orders for a 15-inch Tablet PC-like device, with shipments to begin in the first quarter of 2004.”

Constantinescu believes Apple will release a 10-inch laptop — similar to a PC "netbook" — instead of a tablet.

But others in the Mac rumor community say the evidence for a tablet release is as strong as it gets.

"If analysts at Piper Jaffray are willing to stick their neck out, I think the sources are fairly credible," Brooke Crothers, a blogger for CNET.com, told FOXNews.com.

"There seems to be a pretty firm consensus out there that it's not going to be a standard netbook, it's going to be a tablet. I think that's as firm and accurate a consensus as you can get for Apple, which is notorious for not saying anything."

Munster pointed out that Apple executives have dismissed netbooks in recent conference calls.

"[Netbooks] have software technology that is old," Apple COO Tim Cook said in a conference call last month. "They don't have a robust computing experience. They lack horsepower. They have small displays and cramped keyboards. I could go on and on but I won't. ... We're only going to plan things where we can deliver something that is very innovative that we're very proud of."

Munster believes that statement is consistent with the reports that Apple will release an iPhone-like tablet instead of a netbook.

"I would say there's probably about a 10 percent probability that [the parts supplier] is lying to us — that does happen. But I feel good about [the claim]," he said.

But Constantinescu says he doubts the rumors because he believes a Mac tablet would be impractical.

"A tablet can't fit in a pocket. You would have to put it in a bag ... and you would have to hold it [while typing]," he said. "Historically, the laptop form has just been best."

But Crothers argued that Apple would revolutionize the tablet market by finding new uses for it beyond typing, e-mail and music.

"Looking into the future, I think tablets are going to be something that a lot of people are going to carry around, like they carry around an iPod today," he said.

"You're going to walk into a store, the store is going to recognize that you've entered the store, it will say, "Do you want to buy a venti coffee?" — it will know what you're going to buy and maybe the transaction will take place on the tablet," Crothers speculated. "It's not made for typing ... you'll have the option, but it's a whole new paradigm."

Munster estimates that the tablet will be released early next year, and that Apple will sell 2 million units — worth $1.2 billion — in 2010.