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Apple fans hope result of tablet computer hype won't be a bitter pill to swallow

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Technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg spoke with Erica Hill about the rumors and online mock-ups of Apple's long-awaited tablet computer.

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It's the big day, fanboys and girls (as if you need to be reminded). If you'll just keep your shirts on a few hours longer, all will be revealed. Apple's iTablet -- or possibly the iSlate or iPad or whatever it's going to be called -- will be officially introduced Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern time.

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The anticipation about Apple's Next Big Thing has been excruciating, the hype never-ending. That Apple will introduce a tablet computer with spiffy new features (does windows, folds laundry) seems to have been a foregone conclusion since early last year. The iTab (or i-something) has been mentioned in some 25,000 articles online since the beginning of this year, according to research firm O'Leary Analytics.

No matter that no one outside of Cupertino really knows anything for sure about Apple's new gizmo, including its name.

This is, of course, familiar territory for Apple, whose new product introductions have been attended by gale-force speculation from cultish legions of Mac worshipers since at least the second administration (sometimes known as the Second Coming) of Steve Jobs in late 1996. It's fair to say that no other business or brand, no blockbuster movie, rock-band reunion tour or Broadway opening, engenders anything close to the buildup and geeky buzz of another major Apple product announcement. Microsoft can't do this, nor can McDonald's or Coke or Toyota.

"No other company has been able to redefine key industries and key product categories the way Apple has," says Erick Schonfeld, co-editor of TechCrunch.com, an influential site for the gizmo-oriented. "They have delivered in the past in a way that no company has and that has set up expectations about what they can deliver in the future. This will be the preview for what potentially will be a blockbuster."

Much of the slavish devotion to Apple is indeed justly earned. In the second Jobs era, Apple has become the imperial power in more than just personal computers. It has made new conquests in music players (the iPod and sequels), music retailing (the iTunes Store), and smartphones (the iPhone), not to mention impressively refining its MacBook notebook computer. With such a winning track record, Apple devotees are willing to forget the company's occasional brilliant flops, like the old Newton PDA and the G4 Cube.

Part of Apple's mystique may be counterintuitive; Apple doesn't talk much about itself, at least not about unreleased products. The secrecy is legendary: Teams of engineers typically work on pieces of a new project, with none of the teams fully aware of how the pieces will fit together or even what the other teams are developing. New employees are lectured about "tailgaters" -- people who sneak into Apple's buildings by closely following an employee who has held his ID up to an electronic reader. Suppliers are held to strict non-disclosure agreements, and distributors are clued in only at the very last stages before launch. One bit of speculation is that Apple has kept the name of its new computer out of the media this long because Jobs is waiting until Wednesday morning to pick it.

While the secrecy has a practical purpose -- Apple doesn't want competitors to know what it's doing -- the Manhattan Project atmosphere undoubtedly inflames the already overheated market in Apple gossip and guesswork. Less information creates oceans of quasi-information. The tech-press speculation grew so frenzied last week that one TechCrunch columnist called for a seven-day moratorium on any further mention of the iTablet.

But Apple is also skilled at manipulating its own cult to its advantage. Much like a politician floating a trial balloon, the company lets information slip, unofficially, says John Martellaro, a former Apple marketing manager who is now an editor at MacObserver.com. Such leaks to selected reporters -- never delivered via e-mail, only in person or on the phone -- are designed to scare potential competitors, gauge reaction to a potential price or product feature, and to raise anticipation for the official announcement, he said. A Wall Street Journal article in early January disclosing that the new tablet computer would cost around $1,000 was a classic of the genre, said Martellaro, who was called on by his bosses to leak information while he was at Apple.

All of this creates enormous interest that can make sales explode. But it's also a high-wire act. Given the buildup, Apple products have to be good to live up to the enormous expectations that surround them, says Schonfeld.

"If it's not a tablet computer, it better be something else that blows everyone away," he says. "If it's the next version of Apple TV, or a new line of MacBooks, [Apple will] feel it not just in the disappointment of the blogosphere but with their shareholders."

Yes, says Mike Schramm, the lead editor of TUAW (the Unofficial Apple Weblog), it's possible Apple could screw it up. "They could make it too unwieldy, too expensive," with apps that are neither new nor desirable.

But Schramm is quick to add that he doesn't think that's going to happen. Not with Apple's financial strength. Not with its recent hot streak. Not with Jobs still in charge.

The sound you might hear later Wednesday is the rest of the Apple universe, nodding its agreement.


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