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It's the most highly anticipated product in years, and there's no proof it actually exists.

The technology world is buzzing with excitement over Apple's tablet computer - a device the company has never revealed details of or even acknowledged is in development. Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs is expected to finally show off the tablet at an event later this month, but until he does, it resides almost solely in the imaginations of the company's fans, based on information gleaned from vague patent applications and press leaks.

For Apple, the tablet represents the next step in a mission to dominate the portable entertainment industry. With the iPod, the company staked its claim to the digital music market; with the iPhone, it expanded on what a portable device was capable of, building an entire applications-based ecosystem and ushering a smart-phone revolution.

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Now, Apple is out to change the rules again.

The tablet - referred to by many as the iSlate, after a domain name the company purchased several years ago - may prove to be even more disruptive than the iPod and iTouch.

Companies ranging from Google Inc. to Hewlett-Packard Co. are betting billions that consumers will come to view mobile computers - everything from tablets to smart phones to netbooks - as their primary digital devices.

Should Apple manage to translate the tablet hype into sales reality, it will have a device that is to mobile computing what the iPod is to digital music.

That prospect is especially troubling for manufacturers who specialize in devices such as electronic book readers. As analysts note, once the tablet's price drops, the computer may well spur a wave of convergence in the mobile sector, giving people little reason to buy a single-purpose device.

"Over time, as Apple ramps up production and costs come down, some people, instead of having a laptop and a desktop, may have a desktop and a tablet device," Morningstar analyst Toan Tran says.

"It's a device that could certainly replace a lot of things."

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Secrets of their success

Apple has one of the most cost-effective marketing strategies of any technology firm - it involves complete silence.

It's part of a strategy the company has mastered to generate industry and consumer buzz ahead of key product launches.

"It's tremendously hard for another tech firm to build the hype that Apple has," Mr. Tran says. "I don't think another company can pull it off with another brand."

Consumers lined up in droves to buy the iPhone a few years ago, after months of word-of-mouth anticipation.

"The only reason we got to know about the iPhone ahead of time is because they had to submit to the [U.S. Federal Communications Commission]" says Alykhan Jetha, CEO of Marketcircle, a Toronto-based firm that designs software for Apple products.

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One reason to keep a product secret until unveiling the ready-for-purchase version is to avoid expectations that the gadget may not ultimately be able to meet.

"In software and hardware, as you're developing things, you hit roadblocks," Mr. Jetha says. "But now you've already pre-announced what this thing is going to do. It's not the best possible interaction."

Apple takes this a step further than most. Apple's suppliers are reluctant to openly discuss the Apple tablet, fearful of ruining relationships with the company. Even the date on which Mr. Jobs is expected to unveil the tablet - Jan. 27 - has been the subject of speculation.

The secrecy, combined with Apple's track record of producing blockbuster products such as the iPod and the iPhone, has largely proven successful. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, several big name manufacturers unveiled their own tablet or slate devices. But Dell, H-P and others weren't able to generate nearly as much attention as Apple, a company that had virtually no presence at CES and whose new mobile computer has yet to be seen.

Indeed, Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer was expected to announce his company's answer to the tablet, a dual-screen device called the Courier, during a CES keynote speech. But instead, Mr. Ballmer simply showcased an H-P tablet running Windows 7, leading to speculation that Microsoft will unveil its gadget closer to Jan. 27 to steal some of the spotlight away from Apple.

Tablets have been around in a form similar to today's models for almost a decade. Microsoft was one of the earlier proponents of the mobile computer, supporting tablets with a version of its Windows XP operating system as early as 2001. But the format never caught on with most consumers.

In fact, some analysts doubt the tablet market will take off this year or next, even should Apple release one.

But the MP3-player market was in equally bad shape when Apple released the iPod, which went on to become one of the best-selling product lines of all time.

"Apple has a history of turning dead business models into something successful," says J.P. Gownder, vice-president and research director at Forrester.

In releasing a tablet now, Apple is aided by the rise of social media. Applications such as Facebook and Twitter have become such a fundamental aspect of new technology that means of accessing the sites are being built into everything from alarm clocks to televisions.

On a single-purpose e-reader, users can read a magazine. But on a tablet, they can read it, view built-in video and then tell their friends what they just saw.

According to sources, Apple has already approached some content providers to discuss partnerships. For publishers, such partnerships have become the new reality of doing digital business. Amazon and Sony struck similar deals with publishers such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But the tablet model allows Apple to do more. Besides content providers, Apple will also likely begin cultivating a network of tablet-specific applications, taking advantage of its beefed-up computing ability.

That's in part why e-readers may be the first product category to suffer should tablets become a hit. Currently, the main advantages e-readers have over more powerful mobile computers are battery life and the clarity of the text on the screen.

But such "electronic ink" displays are far less useful for images, and can't handle video. For book lovers, a low-cost e-reader may still be a far more desirable choice than a tablet computer, but some of the high-end e-readers on display at CES this year carried price tags upwards of $700 (U.S.), not far from the Apple tablet's rumoured price of $1,000.

"I wouldn't shell out that kind of money for a single-purpose device," Mr. Jetha says. "I think those things are doomed."

What the Tablet will do

According to sources, the Apple tablet has been through about six redesigns, and those are just the recent ones.

It is believed that Mr. Jobs personally oversaw the tablet's design. That the company's top boss would supervise the project is not surprising, given that the device would complete a trilogy of gadgets, alongside the iPod and the iPhone, that have received as much praise for their form as their function, essentially reinventing the Apple brand in the process.

That's why the tablet is expected to sync seamlessly with its siblings, giving users access to their music, movies, applications and other media through the same iTunes model Apple established for its other products.

But the tablet will also likely take user interaction one step further. The iPod became synonymous with the scroll-wheel, and the iPhone with the flick of a finger. The tablet will probably employ multi-touch - the ability to use more than one finger simultaneously on the screen to input commands. Because most people generally have a harder time typing on a virtual keyboard, and tablets don't tend to have physical keyboards, the Apple device will likely rely heavily on "gestures" - predetermined movements of the fingers that prompt specific actions. If a user wants to rotate a photo, for example, they place five fingers on the screen in the outline of a circle, and rotate.

As several analysts point out, there exists a group of diehard Apple fans who will buy the tablet once it comes out, regardless of price or specifications. But ultimately, the tablet's success or failure with a wider customer base will likely rest on its ability to keep users connected. The tablet is expected to have a built-in camera, as well as the ability to handle Wi-Fi and 3G networks.

The tablet's connectivity options could pose a problem for Canadian users. According to sources, Apple considered bundling free 3G connectivity with the tablet. One such option could be to partner with a carrier such as Verizon in the United States and offer, say, access to Twitter at no cost to the user. Other companies have tried the same route. The Amazon Kindle e-reader, for example, allows users in the U.S. to surf the Web on a no-frills browser for free.

But that free access is part of the reason the Kindle was late coming to Canada, as Amazon and Canadian carriers had trouble seeing eye-to-eye on the costs of the free wireless component. Coupled with the relatively small Canadian market, such issues could delay the tablet's launch in Canada, much the same way Canadians waited almost 10 months to get their hands on the iPhone.

But such concerns are likely premature, given that the Apple tablet, if it even exists, is still hidden behind fortress-like security. What is clear is that Apple's business strategy is firmly focused on expanding its dominance in digital entertainment. The success of the iTunes store made Apple the world's largest seller of music. With a tablet, the company would have a device in the market with enough processing power to handle all manner of multimedia, from high-definition movies to big-budget games, productivity software and social networking.

"I think what Apple wants to do with the tablet is converge many more functions," says Mr. Tran of Morningstar.

"They want to be the centre of the digital lifestyle."

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