What If Apple's Tablet Tanks?

Much-rumored iPad could be a lemon

By Owen Thomas
|  Tuesday, Jan 26, 2010  |  Updated 2:10 PM EDT
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Steve Jobs Unveils Himself at Apple Event

Vernhart on Flickr

Apple lovers will have to keep guessing about what a rumored tablet will look like.

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Mega-Hype Surrounds Apple Announcement

Steve Jobs has the tech world buzzing once again.
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The hype about Apple's new product, set to be unveiled in San Francisco Wednesday, is reaching iPhone proportions.

Everyone's asking what it will look like, how much it will cost, whose network it will run on, and whose business it will rescue.

The publishing industry, in particular, seems convinced that a tablet-shaped computer from Apple will help it revive flagging consumer sales of books, newspapers, and magazines.

Here's a question no one seems to be asking: What if this thing doesn't sell?

It's not a possibility Apple executives seem willing to entertain. In a press release announcing Apple's earnings, Steve Jobs teased investors with this statement:

"The new products we are planning to release this year are very strong, starting this week with a major new product that we’re really excited about."

Given how rarely Apple talks about upcoming products, even one set to be revealed in two days, Jobs's pronouncement was notable. His right-hand men, COO Tim Cook and CFO Peter Oppenheimer, also spoke -- virtually unprompted -- about their excitement in a conference call with Wall Street analysts.

The easy way to cover this story is to fall in line with their enthusiasm. It plays to the crowd who want to be convinced they picked the right horse when they bought their most recent Apple device.

And Jobs has a reputation as the geek with the golden gadgets. But it's helpful to remember that even under Jobs, Apple has had flops. Remember the G3 Cube? Or Apple TV?

Even the original iPod was not a huge seller. It took three years -- after Apple shrunk down the ungainly hard-drive-based device to the iPod Mini -- for it to become a pop-culture sensation.

But the iPod's eventual success set the stage for Apple's ultimate product line: hype. The iPhone had to upstage the iPod. And now this tablet -- call it the iPad, the iSlate, or the iWhatever -- has to beat the iPhone, even though there's not much evidence people want a keyboard-less laptop or a too-big-to-pocket iPhone.

Perhaps in five years we'll have a name for this device: iForgot.

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