Expect shortages of new iPad, say analysts

Supply will be tight for five or six months as production of new HD screen creates bottleneck

Apple will not be able to meet demand for the new iPad when it goes on sale later this month, analysts have said.

The company will host an event in San Francisco Wednesday morning , by all signs the launch of its next tablet. According to reports today, Apple will begin selling the new model on March 16.

But as with the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S last year, experts expect that supply will be out of sync with demand for at least several months after the tablet hits stores.

"They'll face a shortage for a while," said Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research today.

"Supplies of the iPad 3 will be tight," agreed Rhoda Alexander, the lead tablet analyst at IHS iSuppli, in an interview last month. "It will be a repeat of 2011."

Last year, Apple admitted its suppliers could not assemble iPad 2 tablets fast enough to meet demand. Four months after the iPad 2's introduction Apple executives said that they were still short of inventory.

"[Although] some SKUs and some countries are at a supply-demand balance, we're still working very hard on the balance of the world," acknowledged Tim Cook, then the chief operating officer and now Apple's CEO, in a July 19, 2011, earnings call with Wall Street analysts.

During the same call, Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's chief financial officer, said iPad inventories remained "well below" the company's target.

It wasn't until part-way through 2011's July-September quarter that iPad supplies met demand, Cook said in a similar earning conference call last October.

Alexander thought that the new iPad would suffer the same fate for five to six months after its introduction, or slightly longer than last year. She attributed the longer stretch to the fact that she -- and other analysts -- expect the company to continue selling the iPad 2 alongside the new device, consuming its share of a finite production capacity.

Both Gottheil and Alexander cited the anticipated higher-resolution screen of the iPad 3 as a major reason for the bottleneck. "Even though it seems now that Apple has had that HD screen in the works for some time -- I think that was behind its huge pre-purchases [last year] -- they still come out at a certain number per minute or hour or day," said Gottheil.

The pre-purchases Gottheil mentioned were disclosed by Apple in January 2011, when Oppenheimer said that Apple had signed agreements with three of its suppliers that obligated it to spend about $3.9 billion "in inventory component prepayments and capital expenditures over a two-year period."

Apple will certainly go into the iPad 3 sales swing with a large inventory -- Gottheil said that the company had about 4 million iPhone 4S smartphones on hand last year when it kicked off sales, and figures that the iPad 3 number will be somewhat smaller -- but it's inevitable that supplies will be short.

"It's an equation to them," Gottheil said. "They have to balance how long they delay the availability [of the new iPad] to build up a sufficient stockpile [for the first round of sales] with having more on hand but waiting longer to launch it."

According to reports by bloggers and reporters , Apple will call the new tablet the "iPad HD" rather than the iPad 3 in a nod to the screen's higher resolution.

Most analysts believe that the new iPad -- whatever it's called -- will sport a screen resolution of 2,048-by-1,536 pixels, or four times the number of pixels as 1024-by-768 resolution of the iPad and iPad 2.

Also today, 9to5Mac.com said that a source who works in an Apple retail store told it that the new iPad would go on sale March 16, or one week from Friday.

That would fit exactly with the timeline of last year's iPad 2, which was unveiled Wednesday, March 2, 2011, and went on sale nine days later on Friday, March 11.

Last year, Apple broke with past practice and did not take online pre-orders for the iPad 2, instead, telling customers that they could purchase the new tablet March 11 at its retail stores, and order one from its online store that same day.

Tomorrow's Apple event is slated to start at 10 a.m. PT, 1 p.m. ET.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com .

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