SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Apple Inc will host a special event on January 27 where it is widely expected to unveil its tablet computer, as the company looks to extend its hot hand into a brand new product category.
The event next week is shaping up as Apple's most eagerly anticipated product launch since the iPhone three years ago.
The company has never acknowledged the existence of the tablet, but rumors and speculation have been building for months.
Although few details about the tablet are known for certain, the device is said to resemble a large version of the iPhone, with a roughly 10-inch touchscreen.
Analysts say such a device would try to bridge the gap between smartphones and laptops, allowing users to stream video, surf the Web and play games while on the go.
Cost estimates on the tablet -- which analysts expect to begin shipping in March or April -- run upwards of $1,000.
Tablet computers have never managed to catch on with consumers, and industry watchers say Apple will have to offer a compelling reason to buy such a device.
If consumers do gravitate to the tablet, it could also propel Apple into the digital book market popularized by Amazon.com's Kindle e-reader, analysts say.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that HarperCollins Publishers, a unit of News Corp, is negotiating with Apple to make electronic books available for the tablet device, citing people familiar with the situation.
HarperCollins is expected to set the prices of the e-books, with Apple taking a percentage of the sales, the Journal reported on its website. Other publishers have also met with Apple, the paper said.
A HarperCollins spokeswoman did not immediately return a call and email seeking comment on the Journal report. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.
The tablet category is certainly seeing plenty of interest from Apple's competitors of late.
The Consumer Electronics Shows in Las Vegas earlier this month was practically bursting with tablets -- or "slates" as some were called -- many of them prototypes, from companies like Hewlett-Packard Co, Dell Inc and Lenovo Group Ltd.
Analysts said Apple's rivals were trying to steal some of its thunder ahead of the tablet launch.
Although there is plenty of skepticism about the tablet category as a whole, Wall Street has been fairly upbeat on the prospects for Apple's device, and shares have run up in recent weeks as new information about the device cropped up in various media reports.
Apple's shares closed at $205.93 on Friday, roughly $10 below its all-time high. Markets in the United States were closed Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr holiday.
Oppenheimer analyst Yair Reiner has estimated the Apple tablet could boost its earnings per share by 25 cents to 38 cents per quarter. His estimate assumed sales of 1 million to 1.5 million units per quarter at an average price of $1,000.
Suppliers for Apple's new tablet computer have begun shipping touchscreen panels and will start delivering aluminum casings for it in February, sources told Reuters earlier this month, implying a second-quarter product launch.
Next week is shaping up as a big one for Cupertino, California-based Apple. The company is set to release its quarterly results on January 25.
Apple sent an email invitation to reporters on Monday for the January 27 media event, which will be held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater in San Francisco.
The invitation did not give any details. It said only, "Come see our latest creation."
Apple spokesman Steve Dowling declined to provide any comment beyond the invitation.
Apple is famous for its splashy media extravanganzas, where Chief Executive Steve Jobs takes to the stage to show off the company's latest consumer device.
The Yerba Buena Center theater is the same one the company used last September to show off new iPods, where Jobs made his first public appearance after his medical leave.