SAN FRANCISCO - More than a year after igniting the tablet computing craze, Apple Inc was preparing to unveil the second version of its blockbuster iPad on Wednesday — possibly minus lead showman Steve Jobs.
Plenty has changed over the course of the year.
Credited with creating a whole new device sector, the company is rolling out the second-generation iPad just as most of its rivals are bringing their first offerings to consumers.
But as Motorola, Research In Motion, Hewlett Packard and all the other manufacturers race to catch up, Apple itself is going through a transformation.
There has been as much media speculation about whether Apple's founder and chief executive Jobs will be able to take to the stage at Wednesday's event in San Francisco as there is about the new device.
Jobs took indefinite medical leave last month and Apple has not since given any details about the cancer survivor's condition.
In his absence, Tim Cook, the company's operations chief and Jobs' heir apparent, or marketing head Phil Schiller, is expected to lead Wednesday's launch.
While Wall Street has grown comfortable with Cook's leadership, Wednesday would provide the first major test of his showmanship skills — a key asset of marketing maestro Jobs.
Apple's Frankfurt-traded shares were up 0.2 percent at 253.8 euros by 1130 GMT, in overall weaker European share markets.
iPad, part two
The new model is expected to have the same 10-inch screen but should be lighter, thinner and faster than its predecessor, according to analysts and blog reports. Apple is also expected to have added both front and back-facing cameras to enable both video chatting and recording.
Camera module maker Genius Electronic Optical Co Ltd and lens manufacturer Largan Precision Co Ltd are starting new supply deals with Apple, two sources familiar with the situation said in December, but neither would say for which product the modules were intended.
Shares in Genius were up as much as 5.1 percent on Wednesday before ending 2.5 percent lower, while Largan edged up 0.2 percent in an overall weaker Taipei market.
"The launch of iPad2 should have been priced in, but any other new features released, for example more powerful hardware, could push relevant stocks into another round of growth," said Mike Fang, fund manager at Paradigm Asset Management in Taipei.
Shares in European suppliers for the first iPad, Infineon and Dialog Semiconductor, were 1.5 percent and 0.5 percent lower.
Birth of new market
While the consumer appetite for tablets has come from nowhere before the iPad, Apple no longer has the market to itself.
Motorola has just launched the well-reviewed Xoom, Blackberry-maker RIM is about to start selling its PlayBook, and Hewlett-Packard is due to bring out its TouchPad this summer.
Companies such as Samsung Electronics and Dell Inc are already selling tablets, but have so far failed to dent iPad's success.
"Apple has secured an incredible time-to-market advantage over its rivals. It's difficult to see how rivals are going to catch up with the iPad anytime soon," said Ben Wood, head of research at CCS Insight.
Apple sold nearly 15 million iPads in 2010 after its launch in April, several times more than analysts had predicted and adding more than $9 billion to the company's revenues last year.
It proved to be a must-have for the end-of-year holiday season and sales are now expected by analysts to top 30 million in 2011.
Shares in the world's most valuable technology company are up roughly 8.5 percent this year, including a near 7 percent fall in three trading days last month on further concerns over Job's health. The shares closed at $349.31 in the U.S. market on Tuesday, valuing the company at more than $325 billion.
(Additional reporting by Clare Jim in Taipei and Tarmo Virki in Helsinki; Editing by Anshuman Daga, Greg Mahlich)