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While Microsoft isn't known for their hardware -- cough, cough, Zune, brick, cough, cough -- they have had a large format touch screen computer out there for a bit. The Microsoft Surface, a big, boxy product sporting a 30" touch screen retailing for around twelve grand, isn't really designed for mass consumption or popularity, though. More of a device for commercial uses, casinos and the like, it does point in some interesting directions.
Something a bit smaller and definitely at a lower price, however, could be in the works as leaks here and there on the internet point toward something cooking over at MS. Could the recently revealed intellectual property patent Microsoft seeks for something referred to as a "MAGIC WAND" be part of the user interface? To read its description, it certainly sounds like the kind of device you'd want with a decent sized tablet.
Codenamed "Alchemy Ventures" (which ties in neatly with the magic wand theme), the theoretical tablet is said to be a project with some involvement from the Surface team. Specifics are thin on the ground and can be seen more as murmurs and tealeaf reading speculation. As well, anonymous "insider" sources claim that Microsoft is merely waiting to see what Apple has cooked up before releasing their tablet.
And so we've come to this: a rumor based upon the possibility of another rumor coming true. While this doesn't necessarily square with reports that Microsoft is looking to get out of the hardware business, dropping “at least” one more iteration of the Zune before they're done, it does put additional pressure on Jobs and Co.
With competitors beginning to hunt the elusive magic tablet as the "next big thing," Apple might feel the pressure to move to market. On the other hand, the iPod wasn't the first mp3 player on the market, just the best one. As long as that mentality guides the process, Apple's probably not sweating this particular bit of industry gossip.