The new device's debut on Wednesday has the technology world in a fever. But will this product be a game changer? And how will rivals respond?
Tablet may be good medicine for Apple
The company, based in Cupertino, California, sent out media invitations for an event tomorrow, promising to unveil a product that could be anything from the rumoured tablet computer to a new iPhone model - but most suspect it is the tablet. Just as the iPod and the iPhone helped to revolutionise the industry, Apple's tablet is being championed to do things a normal computer cannot do - from saving journalism from the death of newspapers to creating a new medium altogether. Apple's tablet has been put on such a high pedestal that it seems anything short of astonishing will disappoint.
It is an unprecedented situation. The feverish attention focused on Apple has come about without anyone outside the company actually seeing this tablet. It is assumed to be a lot like an iPhone, but bigger - with multi-touch capabilities, interactive software and wireless internet connectivity. Knowing Apple, though, the company definitely has some extra features up its sleeve. If you believe the headlines, this hand-held gadget, regardless of whether it was conceived by the Apple chief Steve Jobs himself, is set to take the technology world by storm.
But will it sell? Apple has had mixed results in debuting products to a sceptical public. Some were enormous successes - others were expensive failures. Apple's Macintosh desktop revolutionised an industry still in its infancy in 1984, with advanced graphics and an intuitive user interface. The iMac saved Apple from potential bankruptcy in 1998 with its unique all-in-one computer design and candy-coloured look. Similarly, Apple's iPod took an existing product - a digital music player - and gave it a makeover, complete with a modern look and memory capacity that blew its competitors out of the market.
But the company has had its share of misses as well. The Newton, a personal digital assistant released in 1993, promised to reinvent personal computing. It did not, largely because of poor management decisions within Apple during the launch and a failed long-term vision for the product. The Lisa, which preceded the Macintosh, was also a bust due to its high cost and slow processing speeds. Its largest customer wound up being the US space organisation NASA.
Perhaps the biggest indicator that Apple's tablet will be a success is its reliable iTunes Music Store. The software application has become a marketing Trojan Horse, a proprietary distribution system that has increased the value of the iPod by easily providing music for the devices by the song instead of by the whole album. The tablet is likely to be no different, industry sources say. Media reports said that the tablet would be able to revitalise television, magazines and newspapers in the way iTunes re-energised music.
Apple has reportedly had discussions with the publishers Hearst, McGraw-Hill Companies, The New York Times and Hachette Book Group to put their content on the tablet so that it can have its debut with a library even Amazon would envy. Mr Jobs probably sees a world in which digital newspaper pages that look like newspaper pages can be turned with the swipe of a finger. Or paying a monthly fee much like your current cable bill to access television shows on-demand where you can clearly see what is happening without squinting.
The managing director of RBC Capital Markets, Mike Abramsky, estimates that if all goes to plan, Apple could sell about 5 million devices for US$600 (Dh2,203) each, adding $2.8 billion to its annual revenues and creating a new growth engine for the company. Apple's competitors will also be keeping a close eye on what the company will announce. Almost every technology company seems to be releasing its own version of a tablet. The trend began in 2007, with Amazon's Kindle. Since then, Microsoft, LG, Lenovo, Samsung, NVIDIA and Sony are some of the companies that have announced that they are working on their own tablet-like device.
"They're more powerful than a phone and almost as powerful as a PC. Perfect for reading, surfing the web and taking entertainment on the go," Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, said during the annual Consumer Electronics Show this month in Las Vegas. So far, the Kindle has been the market leader in this segment, selling an estimated 2.5 million units, says Forrester Research, a consultancy. Amazon has led the way, not with fancy graphics or superfast processors, but by drawing heavily from the electronic retailer's library to wirelessly transfer books and newspapers to users. Apart from the Kindle, none of them has the necessary content distribution model to stand out from the pack and become desirable to consumers. That is, unless one other major technology company enters the picture.
Only Google appears to have the necessary engineering and innovative drive to take Apple on. While the search engine giant does not appear to have any plans to release a tablet of its own, it does offer its own touch-screen phone, operating system and several software packages that rival Apple's products. It is too early to speculate, but the one thing of which the technology world has reminded us is that apparently nothing is impossible. We have spent nearly 300 years pounding away at typewriters and keyboards, but this week tablets might finally be back in fashion for the first time since Moses came down from the mountain. @Email:email@example.com
Amazon - Kindle The current king of the tablet market, the Kindle from Amazon, uses an "electronic paper display" - paper-like high contrast - and can wirelessly download content from the Amazon library. It has sold an estimated 2.5 million units since it debuted 2007. Sony - Reader Daily Edition The Reader has a 7-inch screen, electronic paper display and can download content wirelessly. The device uses an iTunes Store-like interface for buying books from Sony. There are six models. Plastic Logic - Que Aimed at the business user, the Que is a 10.7-inch touchscreen tablet that incorporates electronic ink on a plastic screen for greater durability. It will be able to download e-books from Barnes and Noble through a wireless network. NVIDIA - Ultra Built in partnership with the US telecoms company Verizon, the tablet supports streaming HD media and is built for 4G service. It is likely to be available for Verizon's roll-out of its 4G network this year. Hewlett-Packard - Slate A prototype was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show this month by the Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer. HP has not announced a release date or price, but the device is multi-touch and runs on Windows 7.