Boosted by the iPad 3, Apple's popular tablet could see sales of more than 48 million this year, Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu believes.
Reports have also popped up that Apple's next tablet would be powered by a quad-core chip and support 4G LTE. Though Wu didn't weigh in on the likelihood of those features surfacing, he did say that such improvements would be "welcome surprises." Based on his supply chain sources, the analyst expects the iPad 3 to sport a higher-resolution screen and to include the Siri voice assistant, both features of the iPhone 4S.
LTE on the iPad would suggest that the iPhone 5 will also support the higher-speed mobile standard, according to Wu, who is eyeing a summer-to-fall timeframe for the next iPhone.
Apple had in the past shied away from LTE for its mobile products, noting that the technology wasn't quite mature enough. Last April, then Chief Operating Officer and now CEO Tim Cook said that LTE chipsets "force a lot of design compromises" that Apple was unwilling to make.
In particular, many of the earlier 4G handsets have been criticized for chewing up battery life. But that's an limitation Apple may have been able to address, according to the analyst.
"Our industry sources indicate Apple has made noticeable progress in improving battery life that have plagued competitor products," Wu wrote in this note. "This is due to the company's ownership of core intellectual property including systems design, semiconductors, battery chemistry, and software."
If the next iPad does feature major changes, Wu believes the refresh would drive sales even higher and further distinguish Apple's tablet from all the Google Android devices on the market and from its only real rival--Amazon's Kindle Fire.
As such, a forecast of 48 million iPads sold this year could prove conservative and would be a hefty boost over the 32.4 million tablets sold during Apple's fiscal 2011 year, which ended last September.
The company is due to release its sales figures for the December quarter on January 24.