Rumors about Apple tablet computer ramp up

A new tablet-style computer from Apple Inc. might be the first major launch in a new class of slate-like multimedia devices that could leapfrog the laptop.

With a gleaming touch screen, it might be perfect for watching movies, reading books, listening to music or surfing the Web. It might come out next summer and it might cost $800.

Or it might not.

Despite a growing chorus of online tablet rumors, Apple has resolutely declined to acknowledge that any such device exists.

But that has not stopped the community of zealous Apple watchers from digging through patent applications, sharing countless images of what the device might look like, and sniffing down every last scrap of fourth-hand information. They’ve even assembled a list of possible names, variously dubbing it the iSlate, iGuide, iScreen and iPad.

“The tablet rumors have been going crazy in the last few months,” said Arnold Kim, senior editor of Mac Rumors, a blog that tracks Apple scuttlebutt. “It’s almost at iPhone levels.”

It seems that almost every day, a new blog post or media report offers an anonymous report, or educated guess, about what the tablet might look like, what it might do and when it will be available.

Last week, the Financial Times reported that Apple has rented space in a San Francisco convention center in late January, ostensibly to showcase a new product. According to the blog , the company has been advising software makers to get their applications ready for a large, mobile device with high resolution. Both reports cite anonymous sources, and Apple would not comment on rumors about the tablet.

The Cupertino, Calif., company’s ability to generate hurricanes of hype around invisible products stems from its record of delivering blockbusters. Apple scored major hits this decade with the iPod music player and the iPhone, both of which have become cultural touchstones and sold tens of millions of units along the way.

With the tablet, said Kim of Mac Rumors, gadget fans stubbornly expect to be dazzled again. “People hold out hope that Apple will surprise them and make a device they didn’t even know they wanted,” he said.

The tablet’s marquee feature is likely to be its screen. As popularly imagined, the device would look like a single color panel a little larger than Inc.'s Kindle e-reader. Because the user would be able to manipulate on-screen objects by touch, including a virtual keyboard, there would no longer be a need for a mouse or conventional keyboard.

The device would almost certainly be capable of playing music and movies, analysts believe, and be compatible with Apple’s online marketplaces such as iTunes and the App Store.

But it’s the tablet’s potential to affect the ailing print world that has the rumor mills churning fastest. With a screen about the size of a printed page, the tablet could function as an electronic reader, suited for the emerging generation of digital books, magazines and news publications.

Perhaps anticipating consumer interest in tablets, prominent publishers such as Conde Nast (Wired) and Time Inc. (Sports Illustrated) have already released concept videos of what their magazines might look in a digital, touch-friendly version.

Web sleuths have found another cache of tablet clues by diving into the U.S. Patent Office’s online database. One recent patent application, uncovered by the blog AppleInsider, shows plans for a touch screen keyboard that would allow the users to “feel” the keys as they typed -- possibly by popping small bumps or bars out of the screen itself.

After a flurry of rumors last week, Apple stock shot up nearly $7 to an all-time high -- and has climbed even further since. On Wednesday, Apple shares rose $2.54, or 1.2%, to $211.64. The company is coming off its most profitable quarter ever, and its stock market value is more than $190 billion, higher than titans such as General Electric Co. ($163 billion) and Chevron Corp. ($156 billion).

But anyone who expects the tablet to be a runaway success like the iPhone -- which has sold more than 30 million units since it debuted in 2007 -- should switch to decaf, said Stephen Baker, a technology analyst at NPD Group.

“It’s a brand-new kind of product,” Baker said, rather than an improvement on an existing one.

In that sense, a tablet might be received more like the iPod, released in 2001 before most consumers owned a digital music player. Unlike the iPhone, the iPod took a few years to catch on.

“People right now are expecting way too much from this,” Baker said. “It takes a long time to create a category.”