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Top Secret

Behind Apple's iron curtain Add to ...

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.

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.

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.

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  • Apple Inc
  • Updated May 23 11:52 AM EDT. Delayed by at least 15 minutes.

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