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 Inc. will unveil a tablet this week -- there's no hard fact that points to the company doing just that. Apple has said jack squat 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 invitation-only press event that everyone assumes 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, the non-announcement 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 idea of an Apple tablet. The invitations that the company issued last week said, "Come see our latest creation," seemingly confirming that Apple will pull back the sheet and reveal a tablet 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. model.

That's one of the biggest ongoing arguments about the tablet: Will Apple go for a one-two punch, offering a smaller tablet with a 7-in. screen at the outset and then shipping 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 speculates that Apple may open with a 7-in. model.

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 that 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 predications range 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 at Technology Business Research, has for months said that an Apple tablet would fill the price gap between the iPod Touch, which maxes out at $399, and the lowest-priced MacBook, which lists for $999. That's 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, 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-generation 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 cost to the consumer by requiring commitment to a multiyear 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 like the iPhone, the iPod Touch and all Macs.

It only gets interesting if the tablet also includes 3G. Will the tablet have enough battery power to support 3G data reception for long periods? Which mobile network will be in play? How much will data plans cost? 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 at BroadPoint AmTech, went on record earlier this month as promising that 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 announcement until sometime closer to the availability date.

When can I buy one? March at the earliest, most fantasy timetables say, but it's also likely you'll have to wait till midyear. Some say they won't be available till the third or fourth quarter.

Although those 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.

For example, CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in January 2007, but he said the gizmo wouldn't be out until June; it was 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 midsummer.

On the other hand, Apple announced the SDK for iPhone 2.0 in March 2008, and the operating system that powered the iPhone 3G hit stores July 11. The four months in between 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% said they think the tablet will include a video player (QuickTime?), 63% bet on e-mail and 61% expect it to 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 the 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 .

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