When Apple holds a press event Wednesday, everyone who's paying attention expects to see the much-anticipated iPad 3.
The latest version of the device that virtually defined the tablet market after its introduction in 2010, the iPad 3 will arrive at a time when competitors are beginning to put up a bit of a fight.
Amazon made a splash with its simpler, cheaper Kindle Fire over the holidays, and rival bookseller Barnes & Noble has countered with its popular Nook Tablet. The Acer Iconia A500 offers more memory than the iPad 2, while other companies have begun flooding the market with devices that are smaller and cheaper than Apple's standard-bearer.
And, just this week, Microsoft rolled out its Windows 8 operating system for tablets, suggesting that Windows-based tablets could be making a serious run.
So, what will Apple do to try to maintain its dominance? As usual, Apple has remained tight-lipped about what it's announcing. The company hasn't even officially said the event is for the iPad.
But it's been almost a year since the iPad 2's release, making the timing right for a refresh. And with the tech-centric South by Southwest Interactive Festival starting next weekend, it would make sense. Last year, Apple announced at the last minute it would be selling the iPad 2 at the Austin, Texas, event -- ensuring buzz among the tech influencers there.
Few people outside Apple know for sure what CEO Tim Cook will unveil next week. But assuming it's a new iPad, speculation and leaks have focused on a few possibilities:
One tidbit that's cropped up over and over is that Apple manufacturers have cranked out a display screen that would be a huge leap from the current model.
The story, largely originating from China where Apple products are made, is that the iPad 3 will have a 2048-by-536-pixel retina display. That would be a major leap from the iPad 2's 1024 by 768 pixels and rival the display on high-definition television.
There have even been reports, based on parts listings provided to suppliers, that the new gadget could be called the iPad HD. (For the record, suppliers aren't told Apple's marketing plans, so take that with a grain of salt.)
Many tech observers who looked at Apple's digital media invitation to the event suspect the crisp, clear partial image of what looks like an iPad is showing off the new display.
The impact could mean more vivid gaming and movie watching as well as easier reading -- a claim that Amazon has been able to make so far with its E-ink Kindles.
However, some observers believe a higher-resolution screen could pose a problem for app developers who haven't prepared for it. Some apps that don't boost the pixel count of their graphics could look blurrier than they do on the iPad 2.
When the iPhone 4S rolled out this year, Siri was perhaps the main feature that numbed the techie pain of not getting a radically updated iPhone 5. (What's in a name, indeed?)
Some folks focused on the voice-activated "personal assistant's" limitations, but the ability to talk to a tiny, handheld computer and have it talk back, much less perform helpful tasks, captured the imaginations of many new owners.
Perhaps in an effort to lend the 4S some pizazz, Apple didn't enable the app on its older phones. But it's hard to imagine why the chatty helper wouldn't be included on the top-of-the-line iPad.
A cheaper iPad
Some observers say Apple may try to challenge less-expensive tablets on the market. At $199, the Kindle Fire is $300 cheaper than the least-expensive iPad.
The Christian Science Monitor quotes an unnamed source saying that Apple is working on a simpler, 8-gigabyte version of the iPad. Currently, the lowest-end iPad has 16 gigabytes of storage, running up to 64 gigabytes on the high end.
The emergence of cloud-based storage has, in some ways, mitigated the importance of storage space on devices such as tablets. And 8 gigabytes would put a cheaper iPad on par with the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet. Even if the offering were a simplified iPad 2, attacking the competition on two fronts could help Apple stem the swelling tide of competition.
Remember also, when Apple introduced the iPad 2 a year ago, it dropped the price of the original iPad by $100.
The first iPad had no camera, which helped the iPad 2 make a splash when Apple rolled it out with front and back-facing cameras and the ability to run FaceTime, its video-chat app.
Reports out of China suggest the iPad 3 could have the same, 8-megapixel camera from Sony that the iPhone 4S does. That camera has earned raves from users, who call it a major upgrade from the camera on the iPhone 4.
The iPad 2 delivers still photos at about 720 pixels. Of course,
It's not just an iPad
OK, we admit this possibility would be the biggest surprise in recent tech-world memory. But since Apple hasn't officially said, we'll throw this one out there.
Let's say, contrary to all the evidence, Apple decides to swerve and announce something else. What might it be?
The leading guess? An Apple TV set -- the next mythical product for which Apple watchers have been waiting.
(Some observers have read the tag line on Apple's press invite -- "We have something you really have to see. And touch." -- to suggest the company will unveil not one but two gadgets.)
Analysts who study Apple's supply line say they've already seen prototypes of a fully integrated Apple TV.
And, last month, Best Buy sent some customers a curiously detailed hypothetical survey question, asking if they'd be interested in a flat-panel, high-definition TV running Apple's iOS system with access to Apple's iCloud service. The hypothetical price tag? $1,499.
Again, we don't expect this development. But should a new iPad not happen, we think an Apple TV is the next best bet.
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