'No rush yet' on US iPad launch day

Apple's iPad, the subject of frenzied industry speculation since its unveiling in January, has so far not drawn the hordes that ushered in the iPhone three years ago.

The afternoon before the much hyped tablet computer goes on sale, a smattering of customers lined up at stores in New York, Washington, Boston and San Francisco, in marked contrast to the thousands that accompanied the iPhone's debut in 2007.



Analysts say early sales have been strong.



But with many able to pre-order the gadget since mid-March, there was little reason to stand in line ahead of Saturday's 9 a.m. launch. Those who ordered early enough online get their iPads on Saturday, via pickup at a store or home delivery.



Apple has staked much of its reputation on the iPad, pitched as a revolutionary new category of device: a lightweight mobile computer that strives to combine the best attributes of a smartphone and a laptop.



It is Apple's most important launch since the iPhone. Wall Street is keen to gauge consumer response to the device, the firm's next growth driver, and the crowds at Apple stores this weekend may provide an early indication of its popular appeal.



On Friday, tech blogs picked up on what appeared to be pictures of the iPad's innards posted by the Federal Communications Commission on its Web site, giving techno-fans their first glimpse of pre-production components.



With the caveat that different parts may have been selected for the final iPad, Apple repair experts iFixit analyzed the photographs and concluded that the iPad uses Toshiba flash memory and a Broadcom communications chip alongside Apple's own A4 processor. It was unclear why the FCC posted the photos.



The iPhone set a high bar for product launches, with sales passing the 1 million mark within 74 days. Some of the more enthusiastic had waited in line for up to five days before the June 2007 launch date. Apple sold more than 2 million in the holiday quarter that year.



Analysts say the company has already received several hundred thousand pre-orders, with first-year iPad sales estimated at anywhere from 4 million to 7 million. .



The pre-orders also succeeded in whittling down the lines a day in advance.



Of course, there are always some hearty enough to wait overnight. At Apple's flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York, around 10 people were in line Friday afternoon. They came armed with beach chairs, umbrellas, jackets, McDonald's fast food, camping mats and other first-day-of-sale survival gear.



The mood was less festive elsewhere. It was all quiet at the Apple store on upscale Boylston Street in Boston at midday. Visiting Londoners Mark and Angela Rebbettes said at the store that they would likely swing back by on Saturday morning and try to get a look at the iPad.



"I think everyone's interested," said Mark Rebbettes, a salesman. Ultimately he thought he would buy one, although she didn't understand the point of the device.



The iPad is a sleek 9.7-inch touchscreen tablet that resembles an oversized iPhone and runs on the same operating system. It starts at $499 (£328) for a short-range Wi-Fi model and tops out at more than $800 (£526) for a high-speed, go-anywhere 3G-enabled version.



It is designed for consuming all sorts of media, from games and video, to electronic books and magazines. Analysts say content deals are key to the iPad's success.



The iPad can use most of the roughly 150,000 apps already available for the iPhone, and more than 1,000 new iPad apps are ready to go on launch day.



Among the iPad apps are an offering from Netflix to stream movies and one from Walt Disney's ABC network that features TV shows. There is a slew of games from developers such as Electronic Arts and startup ngmoco. Many analysts expect the iPad to provide stiff competition for Nintendo's DS and Sony's PSP devices.



In addition, iPad apps from the New York Times and News Corp's Wall Street Journal will offer some access to content from the two newspapers.



Apple is also launching its own digital book business that will compete with Amazon.com's Kindle.



No wonder iPad sales expectations keep climbing by the day. On Friday, research group iSuppli said it expects first-year shipments to hit 7 million in 2010. Many analysts expect Apple to sell 1 million or more iPads in the June quarter.



Reviews of the iPad have been largely positive, emphasizing its ample battery life and ease of use.



Saturday's iPad launch is only in the United States and only for the Wi-Fi model. It will be available in nine other countries later this month.



Apple's stock is up around 12 per cent this year and has been setting new all-time highs. Analysts say that regardless of how well the launch goes, its stock price is likely to slip next week as investors cash in profits.

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