Wednesday, Apple is expected to introduce a new iPad that's faster and sharper than previous models. And analysts forecast that consumers will respond by opening their wallets in record numbers, just as they have before. .
Up to 60 million iPads will be sold this year, bringing the total sold since the tablet was introduced in April 2010 to more than 100 million, analysts who cover Apple estimate. Some 55 million have been sold to date, according to Apple.
The strength of iPad sales along with those of iPhones and Macintosh computers helped power Apple to a market valuation of $500 billion, a feat few other companies have accomplished. Cisco, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Intel and Microsoft all once reached that level but have since fallen back.
"People have been waiting to get the new iPad," says Shaw Wu, an analyst at Sterne Agee. "There's real pent-up demand."
He predicts sales of 55 million iPads this year alone; Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster thinks it's higher, at 60 million.
The current total tablet market is 75 million, says Munster, and includes models based on Google's Android mobile operating system such as those from Toshiba and Samsung, the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet. The only ones that have caught on with consumers are the Fire and Nook Tablet, both selling for $199, says Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg.
Within the next few years, more tablets will be sold yearly than computers, Munster says. "Consumers love them."
More important, corporations and other enterprise operations are snapping them up, says Charles Wolf, an analyst at Needham & Co.
"It's astonishing how fast the product has spread through business, education and health care," he says, mentioning uses for iPads such as restaurant menus, a replacement for flight manuals on airplanes, and as amenities on cruise ships and in hotels.
What analysts expect to see in the new iPad:
Better resolution. Munster thinks the iPad will have the sharp Retina display seen on the iPhone, to the point where Apple will call this model "iPad HD."
Faster Internet reception, on 4G wireless networks. "This could be Apple's first 4G product," Wu says.
Improved processor and camera. (The same higher-resolution camera first introduced on the iPhone 4S in October.)
The Siri "personal digital assistant," which offers computer-generated spoken help, as first seen on the iPhone 4S.
Munster thinks Apple will continue to sell the iPad 2, but at a lower price of $399, to have a less-expensive model available to consumers. The iPad 2 currently starts at $499.
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