Michael Tchao doesn't look anything like Gabe Kaplan. But for me, seeing Tchao evokes memories of the 1970s TV sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, which starred Kaplan as a teacher returning to the Brooklyn school from which he graduated.

The reference works because Tchao is back at Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) after a lengthy absence, The New York Times reports. His last project for the Mac maker? The failed Newton MessagePad.

Publicly, Tchao's role at Apple hasn't been defined. Most assume he will be working on an Apple tablet. Who wouldn't, with his history of working on the Newton? What I wonder is whether Tchao is being asked to reanimate the cultish device in the form of an iTablet. Zombie Newton, if you will. Or better yet: Newton 3G.

The moniker would fit. When former Apple CEO John Sculley introduced the Newton device in 1993, he boldly called it the "defining technology of the digital age." He turned out to be wrong about that.

But in describing the new category, he also made an important observation that describes precisely what today's tablet wannabes envision. "Communications is a key component of this new emerging industry," Sculley said at the time.

Fast-forward 16 years. Those nodding heads you're seeing belong to executives at Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Sony (NYSE:SNE), and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), all of whom are creating tablet PCs that, among other things, threaten the long-term existence of Amazon.com's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Kindle.

Jobs would love a slice of this pie as much anyone. DisplaySearch estimates that the market for touchscreen devices, including tablets, will grow from $3.5 billion this year to more than $6 billion by 2012, CNET's News.com reports.

And think about it: What Mac fan wouldn't love to see Jobs on stage, smiling as the "Kotter" theme song plays in the background and holding the new iTablet as "Welcome Back, Newton" flashes on the screen behind?

This is Jobs' Apple. But with the prevalence of Wi-Fi, fast, low-power processors, and now Tchao's return, the iTablet seems destined to become exactly what Sculley envisioned so long ago.

Get your clicks with related Foolishness:

Amazon and Apple are Stock Advisor selections. Microsoft is an Inside Value pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers had stock and options positions in Apple at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. The Fool's disclosure policy is strung out from the road. Coffee, please.