FAQ: What we don't know about the Apple tablet

Everyone expects Apple to unveil the next great thing Wednesday; here's what we know, or don't, about the device.

What do we know about technology's worst-kept secret? Not a heck of a lot.

In fact, for something that everyone seems to know about -- that Apple will unveil a tablet this week -- there's no hard fact that points to the company doing just that. Apple's said jack about a tablet, yea or nay, unless you count the leaks to the Wall Street Journal that many have assumed originated with Apple itself.

Without facts, what we have is rumors and rumors of rumors.

That admission makes this more of an anti-FAQ than an FAQ, so bear with us. Just remember that until Wednesday, when Apple kicks off the event everyone's assuming will focus on a tablet, no one outside the company, or at best, a very small circle of reviewers, knows anything.

Will Apple unveil a tablet on Wednesday? If it doesn't, it will be one of the biggest "gotchas" in modern consumer electronics history, a vaporware debacle fueled by Apple enthusiasts and Wall Street analysts, but not suppressed by the company.

Apple keeps secrets better than the former Soviet KGB, so nothing is certain until the words spill out of their executives' mouths. But virtually every analyst and pundit has bought into the tablet. Last week's invitation -- which read "'Come see our latest creation' last week -- seemed to seal the deal, that Apple will pull back the sheet and reveal the device Jan. 27.

If it doesn't deliver, the backlash will be as newsworthy as the tablet's debut would have been.

How big a screen? A 10-in. diagonal display. Or maybe a 7-in.

That's one of the biggest ongoing arguments about the tablet: Will Apple go for a one-two punch, with a smaller tablet based on a 7-in. screen at the outset, then ship a larger device later? Aaron Vronko, who has torn apart all kinds of consumer electronics -- and whose company RapidRepair services iPhones and iPods -- says that a 10-in. tablet is inevitable, but that Apple may open with a 7-in .

Vronko based his bet on the power demands of LCD screens and the lack of production volume for power-sipping OLED (organic light emitting diode) displays in the 10-in. size.

Others have claimed that Apple will sell more than one model. Last November, reports circulated from Asian component makers -- the source of many of the last year's rumors -- who said Apple would deal out a pair of devices , including a smaller model that relies on an OLED display.

How much will one cost? We don't know.

But everyone else apparently does. The range runs from a low of $500 to a high of $2,000 , with most speculation focusing on the $800 to $1,000 range.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, has for months said that a tablet would fill the price gap between the iPod Touch, which maxes out at $399, and the lowest-priced MacBook, which lists for $999, the reason why he and others have pegged $800 as the probable price.

But Apple often goes against the grain when it prices products, and it's not known for low-balling. Expect a higher price, we say, because of demand -- sure to be intense among the faithful -- and because it gives Apple room to later reduce the price, the tactic it used with the first-geneation iPhone in 2007.

The immediate out-of-pocket impact could be softened if Apple, as some expect, partners with one or more mobile carriers that would subsidize the consumer's costs by requiring commitment to a multi-year data plan.

How will the tablet connect to the Internet? Again, no one knows for certain, but the sure bet is that the tablet will support Wi-Fi, just as do the iPhone, iPod Touch and all Macs.

It only gets interesting if the tablet also includes 3G. Will the tablet have enough battery to power 3G data reception for long periods? Which mobile network will be in play? How much will data plans costs? And will carriers be able to handle the added demand for bits when some -- AT&T, anyone? -- can't keep smartphone customers happy?

Brian Marshall, an analyst with BroadPoint AmTech, went on record earlier this month as promising Verizon would support the tablet in the U.S. Like most of his colleagues, Marshall said multiple carriers would partner with Apple.

Last week, however, other analysts -- who declined to be named -- cautioned against assuming Verizon was on board.

There's no reason, of course, why Apple has to announce carrier partners Wednesday, since it's unlikely the tablet will be immediately available. Apple could postpone that until nearer the availability date.

When can I buy one?March is the earliest , most fantasy timetables say, although mid-year is also likely. Some have pegged it as far away as the third or fourth quarter.

Although those same pesky Asian sources were among the first to name March -- based on purported orders and an extrapolation of how many units Apple needed in the pipeline prior to launch -- the rest of us can look to Apple's history for some hints.

In January 2007, CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone , but said the gizmo wouldn't be out until June, one of the first times that the company pre-announced a product. The six-month lag between the date it was revealed and the sale date gave Apple time to fill the channel, beat the hype drum and get its other ducks in a row. A similar timetable for the tablet puts its on-sale date in mid-summer.

On the other hand, Apple touted the SDK for iPhone 2.0 in March 2008, the operating system that powered the iPhone 3G, which hit stores July 11. The four months were needed to give developers time to build App Store applications, the defining change Apple instituted that year. If Apple releases a tablet SDK this week and wants to give tablet app developers the same four months, that translates into a late May launch.

What will I do with one? It's easy to make a product no one has seen be a product that pleases everyone. But what will the tablet do when reality intrudes?

At the least, say the prognosticators, the tablet will be an e-book reader , a competitor for Amazon's Kindle, if only because that market could be lucrative, as sales in the last quarter of last year attest.

The presumption is that Apple will sell access to book, newspaper and magazine content via iTunes.

Everyone expects a browser, of course, but beyond that, it gets a little hazier. Harry McCracken, former editor-in-chief of PC World and now a prominent blogger, recently asked readers of his Technologizer site to vote on what they thought the tablet would contain. Their take: 81% think the tablet will include a video player (QuickTime?), 63% bet on e-mail and 61% believe it will play games.

Will the tablet run Mac OS X apps? Surprise! This is something else we don't know.

Most analysts have voted thumbs down on the idea and instead believe that Apple will go with a closed ecosystem like the iPhone and iPod Touch that relies on company-approved applications sold through an App Store.

To keep control of what ends up on tablets, Apple will have to either use the iPhone OS or create a separate operating system, most likely yet another offshoot of the Mac operating system.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , send e-mail to gkeizer@ix.netcom.com or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .

Tags Apple tablet

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)

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