More responsive than a netbook and with better web-surfing than an iPhone, Apple's so-called 'Tablet' is billed as the future of computing. Except that it doesn't exist – yet. Tim Walker reports

It's the most hotly anticipated gadget of next year, yet no one outside Apple headquarters knows whether it will ever make it into the hands of consumers. In fact, the Apple "Tablet" – a touchscreen computing device that may or may not outsell the iPhone, may or may not crush the Kindle and may or may not save the media – may not even exist. But that hasn't stopped technology bloggers getting terribly excited about it, nor has it prevented other companies, including Microsoft, from preparing rival models.

In the past, hand-held tablet computers have represented just a slim specialist sliver of the PC market, used in professional contexts like healthcare or insurance (or by the waiting staff in Wagamama), but never becoming a consumer hit. Thanks to advances in intuitive touchscreen technology, however, most experts expect the tablet to be the next major hardware item in an ever-expanding consumer tech sphere: a device that would combine many of the best things about netbooks and smartphones and, perhaps, render the burgeoning e-Reader industry redundant.

Apple has allegedly been working on various Tablet prototypes for some time, their efforts increasingly concerted following the release of the iPhone and iPod Touch in 2007. The company has even filed patents for touchscreen-related technology that eagle-eyed Apple fans have taken as proof of the Tablet's existence. Non-working samples have supposedly been floating around in China for some time. And more recently, it was reported that there were delays to the original design and manufacturing schedule – perhaps caused by Apple CEO Steve Jobs' celebrated perfectionism.

According to Jeremy Horwitz, the editor-in-chief of the dedicated Apple-watching blog, it's inevitable that the company will one day produce a touchscreen device on a grander scale than the iPod Touch. In fact, he expects the first Apple Tablet to be announced early in 2010, then released into the wild later in the year. He recently reported for iLounge that it would have a 10.7-inch screen, use a version of the iPhone operating system, be available in both a 3G and non-3G models, and would boast pin-sharp picture resolution.

"Apple always has something else up its sleeve," Horwitz explains, "but game-changing products are rarities, and this has great potential. Based on what we know about the current prototype, it sounds like it is going to overlap three different product categories – the netbook, the smartphone, and the e-reader. Think of a netbook with a simplified, media-centric interface, 3G communication capabilities, and the ability to easily display books, games and interactive media on a big, attractive touchscreen."

Though Apple itself won't discuss the Tablet, others are happy to bank on its future existence.

High-ranking staff at both The New York Times and Condé Nast have announced preparations for presenting their publications in a tablet- friendly format, intent on the idea that a colour touchscreen could provide a perfect digital delivery method for former print media. If Apple, or anyone else, could devise a straightforward way to make it pay – an iTunes for newspapers – it would be revolutionary.

Even Rupert Murdoch, who's not known for being quick off the mark when it comes to the internet, has suggested that subscriptions via a Tablet could make Jobs the saviour of newspapers. The Tablet, says Horwitz, "will very likely provide a revenue stream for publishers ... that will enable publications to monetise their content in a way that they are struggling with right now. My belief is that Apple will capitalise on concepts recently introduced in iPhone OS 3.0 and iTunes 9 to achieve this – specifically in-app purchasing for serialised content."

If Apple wants to be the first big player in this market, however, it may have have to move fast. Microsoft has announced that its own "Courier" device is in the later stages of development. A feature-rich personal organiser and browser with twin seven-inch touchscreens that open out like a book, its early prototypes look every bit as pretty as any bit of Apple hardware.

Meanwhile, Michael Arrington, editor of TechCrunch – the most popular tech blog on the web – has created his own 12-inch "Crunchpad" tablet device, which he claims will soon be available for between $300 and $400 (£180-£240), far less than the predicted cost of the Apple Tablet, which is anything up to $2,000.

Other manufacturers already have new tablet devices on sale. Asus recently released the Eee PC T91MT tablet netbook, which takes advantage of the built-in touchscreen capabilities of Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows 7. And the considerably more attractive "Vega" netbook by Converged Devices, runs using Google's Android operating system. While the Vega's reviews have been mixed, the Android OS has plenty of fans and Google's formidable marketing power in its corner.

So Microsoft and Google have both put their faith in the future of the tablet, and Apple will probably do the same. Why now? The latest generation of smartphones has proved the efficacy of intuitive touchscreen technology.

But it's more than that: the hardware market is finally accelerating its diversification. "The netbook has proved that you don't always need an all-singing, all-dancing PC," explains Ranjit Atwal, principal research analyst for Gartner, the IT consultancy. "You use a netbook for distinct tasks, and the same is true for tablet touchscreens. If you're used to using an iPhone interface with your fingers it's a natural progression – the groundwork has been done. It may be a better way of using a PC if what you're doing is not creating content but absorbing and consuming content."

Many people use their laptops mainly for browsing the internet, hence the recent success of the memory-poor netbook. What netbooks lack in disk space, they make up for in portability and price. However, a tablet might be an even more effective way to browse on the go. "Each of these different devices fits different requirements of the consumer," says Atwal. "And the tablet makes content consumption much easier – flicking around web pages, showing photographs and so on. It's much more interactive than using a mouse or keyboard. It removes a layer between the user and the information on the screen. For Apple users that will mean getting the iPhone experience on a larger scale, and for PC users it's a case of getting used to interacting with a computer in a new way, without a keyboard."

The Amazon Kindle was recently launched in the UK, along with a second generation of Sony's E-Reader device. While the tablet won't be in direct competition with the smartphone, which has distinct uses of its own, it may fulfil all the same tasks as the e-reader, in a prettier package, and with added benefits. If nothing else, the Apple Tablet would spell big trouble for Amazon.

"My belief," says Horwitz, "is that [the Tablet] is first and foremost going to be Apple's re- imagining of the book – like Amazon's Kindles, but far more powerful and forward-thinking. There is a large and modestly tapped market for a device that can carry an entire library of classically formatted book and magazine content, but also display video and interactive media content, doing so with an interface that's as simple as using a book. Touchscreen technology and a colour screen will make such a product intuitive, powerful, and beautiful in a way that Kindle and similar e-readers have never been."