iPad Launch: What Buyers Need to Know

Its long-term future may be hazy, but much is coming into focus about Apple’s tablet ahead of launch.

Apple iPad.
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Forecasts vary widely on just how hot the iPad will be, but the yet-to-be-released device is igniting the speculative fever that often descends on Apple launches. The tablet PC hits stores on Saturday after weeks of brisk pre-order sales on Apple's website.

Apple appears to have exhausted its online supply. Web buyers who order an iPad this week are being told that theirs won't ship until more than a week after the launch. Still, it's hard to know just how well the device is selling because of the secrecy Apple enforces around its product launches. And the iPad was met with more tepid initial responses than other Apple announcements, particularly the iPhone.

[See Apple's iPad: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.]

But most analysts now predict healthy sales of 5 million units this year. Some optimistically project a runaway hit with as many as 10 million iPads sold in 2010, which would be significantly more than the iPhone launch. Those forecasts help explain the run-up in Apple's shares, which are trading this week at about 20 percent higher than in the days after the iPad was announced.

Perhaps surprisingly, several surveys suggest that early buyers will focus more on productivity—word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations—than the music and video that has helped give Apple its glitz. That's partly a result of the iPad's starting price of $500. The cost is half the $1,000 that many predicted before the January announcement, but it's still pretty steep for buyers who are more focused on entertainment, says Stephen Baker, a market analyst at NPD Group. "For young people, $500 is a lot of money to spend."

[Here are five reasons the Apple tablet could flop.]

In an NPD survey, 9 percent of consumers said they're at least "very likely" to buy an iPad in the first six months. That's a pretty healthy number, Baker says, for a product that hasn't launched yet—especially one that's trying to popularize a new category. As with music players that came before the iPod, many companies have tried with little success to sell tablet computers.

Whatever its future, much has come into focus about the iPad since it was announced in January. Here's what potential buyers might want to know:

When. The cheaper, Wi-Fi versions of the iPad go on sale Saturday, April 3. Apple has started notifying earlier online buyers that their orders will also arrive by Saturday. Anyone now trying to order a Wi-Fi version of the iPad on Apple's Web store is promised delivery by April 12. The iPad models that can use AT&T's high-speed, 3G wireless data network are due in late April.

Where. Apple's 200-plus retail stores and most Best Buy electronics stores will begin selling the iPad Saturday morning. Apple says sales start at 9 a.m. in respective time zones, which means that most of the Best Buys and some Apple stores will open an hour earlier. A few college bookstores and select resellers will also have the iPad in stock. It's unlikely that Apple fans will need to line up to ensure they get an iPad on the first day, but that won't stop the diehards.

Pricing. Apple surprised many followers with its aggressive pricing for the tablet, which most had predicted would be closer to $1,000 in price. But $500 is still pricey for a small PC with only a Wi-Fi connection. Models with 3G wireless start at $630 plus the cost of a wireless plan from AT&T. Apple has told analysts that the company will drop prices to pump sales if needed. Prices will inevitably drop, anyway—and perhaps relatively soon; one analyst estimated that Apple pays less than $300 to assemble the low-end model. Tech companies are known to soak early adopters willing to pay top dollar to live on the cutting edge.

Content. Although it can do much more, many see the iPad as the ultimate E-reader. Apple is introducing its own bookstore, iBookstore, which will reportedly be integrated into its iTunes software. Publishers are pushing to raise the $10 standard price of books on Amazon's Kindle, and supposed leaks from iBookstore have bestsellers bouncing between $9 and $12. Software from Amazon, meanwhile, will enable the iPad to read and buy books from the Kindle store. The iPad can also handle the free books that Google, Project Gutenberg, and others have scanned. An assortment of newspapers and magazines will be available at launch, some selling at newsstand prices. The Wall Street Journal will sell its iPad edition for $18 a month, or nearly $10 more than its online subscription.



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