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Tech Report - All eyes on Apple

By Michael Connolly

Once again, the tech industry and much of the business world is focused on Apple and its mercurial CEO, Steve Jobs.

The build-up for tomorrow's press conference in San Francisco has been stage-managed to perfection, with sufficient information leaking out to whet everyone's appetite but not enough to spoil the surprise.

The fact that Apple is about to unveil what it believes will be another game-changing tech product is undeniable. In a statement accompanying yesterday's record quarterly profits, Mr. Jobs himself alluded to the new products that Apple plans to release this year "starting this week with a major new product that we're really excited about."

So what has got everyone so worked up? What can we expect from the company that revolutionized the music industry with iTunes and still has the gold standard in smartphones with the iPhone?

According to most industry commentators, we should see some sort of "tablet" device. Tablet computers, which were first introduced in 2001, have had a checkered history. Originally intended as ultra-portable devices for the always-on-the-go businessman, they tended to be rather clunky, featuring awkward controls and limited functionality. The tablet design eventually gave way to the netbook, which now dominates the cheaper end of the laptop market.

However, the emergence of touchscreen technology and 3G wireless networks has changed all that. Whether as an e-reader (think Amazon's Kindle) or as a mini-multimedia device (Apple's iPod touch), the tablet format has made a strong comeback.

Variously dubbed the "iSlate" or "iPad" (the real name will be revealed tomorrow), Apple's tablet is expected to be significantly bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a netbook. Expect to see a simple but beautiful design and expect the device to include every state-of-the-art feature, from the latest touchscreen technology to super-fast connectivity to enhanced battery life.

But it's not so much the design but what the Apple tablet can do that is likely to grab the headlines. Expect it to be the ultimate multi-functional device – part e-reader, part music and movie player, part Internet hub, part personal organizer. The Apple tablet may be the first device since the cell phone that you simply have to have with you at all times.

And we can expect more. Apple has done nothing to dampen down expectations that, like the iPod and iPhone before it, the Apple tablet will be like nothing else on the market.

We might not know why we need a tablet today, but by the time Mr. Jobs has finished tomorrow, we will all be wondering how we ever got through life without one!  

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