The wait is almost over. The iPad launch is this week -- Saturday, April 3, to be exact. Soon, lines will form outside of your local Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) store, though online reports suggest only those who pre-ordered an iPad prior to Saturday, March 27 will be leaving with the precious cargo in hand. Best Buy (NYSE: BBY ) stores, given access to a handful of the devices, will be buzzing on Saturday as well.
So here's the million-dollar -- or more accurately, billion-dollar, question -- how many iPads will Apple sell? The launch speculation feels like a slightly more informed, high tech version of guess the number of jelly beans in the jar. That said, there are a number of educated, although wildly varying, estimates out there.
Consensus estimates of Wall Street analysts are 3 million to 4 million iPad sales this year, with more optimistic analysts, such as Morgan Stanley's Katy Huberty predicting 6 million. Meanwhile, iPad suppliers expect to ship 8 million to 10 million iPads this year.
When the iPad was first announced in January, the level of skepticism about the product was high. Not a laptop, not a smartphone -- who will want this device, and what's the deal with that name? Since then, the skepticism seems to have thawed with the arrival of spring, or further reflection on Apple's history of creating consumer demand where none previously existed. Consensus sales estimates are now at the high end of ranges published in January.
Only time will tell whether the iPad is the next iPhone or the next Apple TV. But it's definitely not the next Palm (Nasdaq: PALM ) Pre or Pixi -- Apple's future does not hinge on the success of this device. Competing products powered by Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android and Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Windows 7 operating systems will emerge, but Apple will define the category.
The launch buzz and early sales volume will be driven by the most devoted Apple fans, but in time, I expect the iPad to find its target consumer. My bet is on a younger consumer eager to replace a textbook-laden backpack with an iPad that also doubles as a gaming and entertainment device.
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