Less than one year since Apple single-handedly created a new consumer technology market with the iPad tablet, the company is set to unveil the second generation of its bestselling product in a distinctly different atmosphere - one rife with new competitors and products to rival what was once the only game in town.
A host of journalists and analysts have descended on San Francisco, where Apple will give the public its first glimpse of the iPad 2 on Wednesday.
But observers will also focus on how Apple handles its first major public announcement since the company's founder and CEO Steve Jobs disclosed he is taking an indefinite medical leave of absence. Mr. Jobs has long been considered the public face of Apple, but much of that responsibility now falls on chief operating officer Tim Cook and the rest of Apple's senior staff.
"[Mr. Jobs]might make a cameo appearance to pop in, make the announcement and pop out," said Roel Vertegaal, an associate professor in human-computer interaction at Queen's University. "It's also possible that Tim Cook will do the honours, which is actually much more likely."
Regardless of how the new iPad is received, this is likely the last time Apple will enjoy complete dominance of the tablet market - if only because a massive number of new tablets are about to land on store shelves.
According to global management consulting firm PRTM, there are 102 tablet models currently either on sale or in development, from 64 companies. At the end of 2010, there were just 30 models available.
"Why have so many players entered so quickly? The short answer is that many simply have no choice," said PRTM partner Huw Andrews. "The 17 million tablets sold in 2010 established a new product category … This level of growth, four times that of smart phones and five times that of PCs, establishes the tablet space as a mobile computing beachhead where tablet makers can attack both the mobile phone and laptop fronts."
But even if Apple can't sustain its current stranglehold on the tablet arena, it could still generate more profit from the sector, in large part because the tablet market itself is growing so quickly. Some analysts predict sales of 40 million to 60 million units this year. A recent survey of 16,000 consumers by the Boston Consulting Group found only 15 per cent of respondents preferred single-purpose devices, compared with 53 per cent who preferred multi-purpose ones. The results indicate consumer preference may be shifting from gadgets such as electronic book-readers to the more all-encompassing tablets.
While rumoured improvements on the iPad 2 include front- and rear-facing cameras, a thinner and lighter design and higher-resolution display, some observers have speculated there may not be significant improvements over the original model. Because Apple maintains such a strong lead in the tablet space, the company may instead focus its efforts on upgrading its iPhone to battle in the much more competitive smart-phone market.
Apple may also use the iPad announcement to expand on its overall mobile ecosystem. Prof. Vertegaal said the company may soon announce an expansion of its cloud-based services that would make its multimedia offerings more competitive with services such as Netflix by, for example, allowing users to start watching a movie on one Apple device and continue later from the same place on another device.
"I do think they will definitely do that at some point," he said. "Whether they do that at the iPad announcement or not is unclear."