It's the one product everyone just knows Apple will unveil in the coming year. It's also the one product no one really knows anything about.
Yes, it's tablet time.
With the rumor drums beating louder than ever about a possible -- no, make that likely ... wait, inevitable -- tablet from Apple, one thing's certain: If Apple doesn't deliver something in the next few months, there are going to be a lot of unhappy bloggers, pundits and analysts, not to mention a host of disappointed long-time fans of all things Apple.
But why now? It's not as if tablets are a new idea. Apple tried it in 1993 with the sometimes-lamented Newton PDA. Microsoft spent significant marketing capital pushing pen computing, also in the 1990s.
Computerworld asked a pair of analysts who cover Apple why a tablet makes sense this year, when it hasn't before.
The technology's ready. "The availability of all the necessary technology," said Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research, when asked why Apple will launch a tablet in 2010. "The larger touch screens, the lower-powered processors.... The technology has finally gotten to a point where it's more than just good enough."
Gottheil also cited improvements in Internet connectivity in his take that the time is right technology-wise. But he wasn't talking about carrier data competence, a matter that's fueled a dogfight between AT&T and Verizon over which company has the best, or worst, data network.
"How to get enough bandwidth is still a problem," Gottheil said, noting that there simply isn't enough 3G around to satisfy the demands of a large number of Web crusin', video watchin', data consumin' tablet owners. "But Wi-Fi and 3G together may do it, and Wi-Fi is more broadly available than ever," he said.
Proof in point: 11,000 locations of fast food giant McDonalds will offer free wireless starting in mid-January.
E-book readers are hot. Although analysts generally agree that Apple's tablet will be more than a Kindle knock-off, they're also certain that, at the least, the new device will function as an e-book reader.
"Clearly the e-reading market is gaining traction with the success of Amazon's Kindle, and the fact that they shipped more e-books than physical books on Christmas," said Brian Marshall of Broadpoint AmTech. "Apple wants a piece of the market."
Gottheil agreed. "The e-book reader market shows that you can make money there," he said, pointing like Marshall to the success of the Kindle this past holiday.
And as anyone knows, Apple loves to make money.
Just how much? Marshall hedged his bets. "A tablet will add anywhere from $1 billion to $5 billion in incremental revenues next year, in my view," he said.
Tablets are fun, computers are not. Gottheil put a different spin on why Apple will crank out a tablet, or two, in 2010. It's all about the fun, he said.
"It's more fun for Apple to make the iPhone OS or the iPhone than it is to make another Mac," said Gottheil "Macs have to be PCs, and PCs are still kind of clunky and finicky. And that doesn't sit well with a company that likes a cool, clean interface and cool, clean design."
In the end, Gottheil's saying, the success of an Apple tablet will depend as much on whatever passion the company can pour into the device as on the technology around which any tablet is built. He has high hopes, for one simple reason. "Apple's always much happier when it has a shiny new device," Gottheil concluded.
A tablet is Apple's next step toward world domination. Marshall had a longer-range reason in mind when he pointed out a possible motivation for Apple's doing a tablet.
"A tablet gets the content guys focusing on Apple, and that will pay dividends down the road when Apple becomes the first to successfully integrate the home office with the living room with a real Apple TV," Marshall said.
In his vision, a "real" Apple TV would be a top-end display wrapped around the current Apple TV hardware -- hardware CEO Steve Jobs famously called a "hobby" for his company -- that could carry a price tag as high as $5,000.
"This is the big picture I think Apple is after, as these will be big-ticket items and will solidify Apple's position in the home not only from an office computing environment with Macs, personal media perspective with iPods and tablets, personal communications with the iPhone, but now the living room in a year or two with the Apple TV," said Marshall.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter @gkeizer, send e-mail at email@example.com or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .