The on- and off-again speculation that Apple ( AAPL) will take the plunge into netbooks is on again.

According to a report Monday in Digitimes the Taipei tech newspaper, "Taiwan-based Wintek will supply touch panels for Apple's new netbook, and shipments will start in the third quarter this year." The report credits an original story in Commercial Times, a Chinese-language paper.

As rumors go, this one has a both a ring of truth and familiarity.

Even Apple chief Steve Jobs has helped fan the speculative flames in his pubic comments on netbooks, which were picked up by key gadget blogs like Gizmodo.

More recently, acting chief Tim Cook told analysts on an earnings conference call last month that netbooks were on the radar.

"We're watching that space -- but right now we think that the products there are inferior," said Cook.

It would fit Apple's pattern to identify a booming market loaded with cheap devices, and plan an up-tier approach. There was a thriving digital music player market before the iPod's arrival. And smartphones had been around in various forms for nearly a decade before the iPhone.

Offering an expensive touchscreen mini-laptop would certainly be an easy extension of Apple's deft device reach.

The problem, however, as Dell ( DELL) and Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) investors will tell you, is that the netbooks game is a race to the bottom from a pricing perspective. Manufacturers like Asus and Acer have excelled at offering stripped down $300 netbooks, much to the delight of penny-pinching consumers.

Apple proudly prices well above the competition and probably outside the range of bargain hunters fueling this trend.

Apple shares closed down $2.19, or 2.5% at $83.11 Monday.