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DALLAS — Apple Inc. was like a ghost haunting the halls of the Las Vegas convention center recently.


Several companies unveiled tablet computers at the Consumer Electronics Show, but over all of them lurked the specter of the portable device Apple is expected to announce Jan 27.


Tablets aren’t new.


They’re basically touch-screen laptops without a physical keyboard.


Microsoft Corp. has been pushing the platform to a disinterested public since the Windows XP era.


At CES this year, Dell Inc., Lenovo and others took the wraps off tablet designs that ranged from functional to funky.


Even Microsoft is grimly forging ahead one more time with a Hewlett-Packard Co.-built “slate” that will run Windows 7.


But Apple has already transformed previously staid industries — notably MP3 players and smart phones — and many expect it to do so with tablets.


Analyst estimates and predictions now for the fabled Apple tablet are about as reliable and consistent as a Magic 8 Ball.


Apple will sell roughly 1.4 million tablets in 2010!


No, Apple will sell as many as 5 million tablets this year!


The machine will cost about $600!


No, $800!


Do I hear $1,000?


There are a handful of consistent rumors around the Apple tablet, but that’s all they are. Most observers now expect a 10-inch screen that will run a version of the iPhone operating system (which is itself a modified version of Apple’s desktop OS X).


It will be a touch screen, of course, for easy navigation.


And you can probably expect your current portfolio of iPhone and iPod Touch apps to run on the tablet, although it’s unknown whether they’ll be scaled up in size to fit the larger tablet screen or run in a small window in their original size.


There’s less agreement on whether the machine will come with built-in 3G wireless Internet access and be sold with a two-year contract like the iPhone.


Perhaps there will be two versions: a lower-priced version that requires a two-year contract and an unsubsidized version that only offers Wi-Fi connectivity.


How much memory will the tablet have?


What’s the screen resolution?


Will it come in pink?


Magic 8 Ball says: Ask again later.


Lost in all the Apple anticipation are the real-world products that other manufacturers are already showing off.


Dell, for instance, seems far along in development of its Mini 5 tablet. The demo version at CES looked and felt like a finished product, and the software was crisp and responsive.


The Microsoft/HP slate is a bit more amorphous and was shown only in a stage demonstration by Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer. Microsoft opted not to put the slate on display at the convention.


But even if Apple does release one tablet to rule them all, some experts doubt it will be much of an empire.


“How many devices does someone really need?” said Kurt Scherf, principal analyst with Dallas-based Parks Associates. “I’ve got a notebook. I’ve got a netbook. Now I’m going to get a tablet? What is that really going to do for me?”


Another research firm, IDC, recently reported that worldwide tablet PC sales peaked at about 1.5 million in 2007 and slipped to 1.3 million units in 2008.


By 2013, that number should inch back up to about 1.9 million, the research firm said.


But that growth rate will be so slow that tablet computers will actually lose share in the overall computer segment, dipping from 1.5 percent of all portable PC shipments in 2006 to 0.6 percent in 2013.


Scherf said he does see an opportunity for tablets to eventually displace the growing category of black-and-white e-books such as Amazon’s Kindle.

Tagged as: apple | tablet
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