Apple's iPad could drive total tablet sales for the year as high as 10.5 million devices, a Gartner Research analyst said today.

Garner reached its estimate by lumping together traditional tablets, like the kind that have filled narrowly defined roles in the past, with "next generation" devices like the iPad. "The iPad isn't a tablet in the traditional sense," said Gartner analyst George Shiffler. "It's a rethink of the whole tablet concept."

What Shiffler called traditional tablets, such as those used in medical, sales and delivery applications, will account for just 2.5 million of the 10.5 million tablet total for the year. "Tablets have languished. They found a niche in certain areas, but they have really never taken off," noted Shiffler.

"The iPad has some very interesting features not found in traditional tablets, and frankly, changes the usage model," he continued.

Apple introduced the iPad in late January to significant fanfare, which was largely replaced with moans and groans about missing features, from Flash to multitasking. At the time, the company said it would start shipping units equipped with WiFi capabilities in late March, then follow with models that add 3G connectivity in late April.

Shiffler cautioned, however, against setting unrealistic expectations for either the iPad or tablets in general. "Our estimate is a best case," he warned, "and presumes that the iPad does take off."

He added that the PC business will continue to be driven by mobile devices, but that netbooks, which have grabbed a significant chunk of the market, will see their share shrink this year under the two-pronged onslaught by new low-powered ultraportable notebooks and tablet-style hardware like the iPad.