OK, so people have drooled endlessly over the iPad. Yes, we've seen it. But it's time to lift our eyes a little higher and ask: does Apple have other unicorns still hidden away?
The unicorns in question being the unreleased but much-rumoured products or services we are always told Apple is “just about” to announce. Unlike many companies, it has a devoted following, who revere the products that it does release so highly that they then go on and make up their own that they'd like it to release in turn.
In some cases, that's based on reality. For years, there were rumours that Apple, whose computers used processors from Motorola - and whose software was thus incompatible with processors made by Intel, which dominates the field - was secretly producing Intel-compatible versions of its products.
The whispers said the project was called “Marklar”. In March 2000 Wifredo Sanchez, an Apple software developer, posted a little note on the Apple Darwin bulletin board saying: “Wednesday - the whole thing compiled for the first time for both PowerPC and Intel.”
And then in 2005 Steve Jobs announced Apple was abandoning Motorola – the chips were falling behind Moore's Law - and shifting to Intel. Even before then, I'd been in press conferences where Steve Jobs had been asked what “iPhone” was. (The first time was probably 2003.) Jobs crinkled up his face in disdain. “Iphone?” he said. “What's that?”
In 2007, Apple announced the iPhone. For slightly longer than the iPhone rumour there has also been the “Apple tablet” rumour - especially after Bill Gates introduced the format at Comdex in November 2001. When's Apple going to release the tablet, people have asked each other. (No point asking Apple. It never comments on rumours, future product releases, or pretty much anything that isn't on its website with a price tag attached.) Others have put together mockups, Photoshop jobs, and done pretty much everything to imagine how an Apple tablet might look.
What none has managed is to imagine how it would actually work – which is of course the really important thing about any piece of technology, and one that Steve Jobs emphasises again and again.
Design, he points out to journalists who don't seem to get the message, isn't about how something looks; it's not something you put onto the outside of an already-built product. It's how you build the product, from the inside out.
Now, though, we've had the iPhone, we've got the iPad and Intel. What's left for the Apple rumour cupboard? You'd think that the last of that triumvirate, which have served us well over the last decade, and spawned all sorts of wild goose chases, would signal the end.
Not at all. The rumours have simply moved to a new place: the cloud. There are, you can be sure, people who are disappointed by what was announced last week - there always are after any Apple launch. Possibly we can count the programmer and blogger Dave Winer among them, who the day before the announcement offered his list of what he expected (with the caveat that it was “not in any way based on actual information”): Apple would drop AT&T; there would be intuitive gestures besides the virtual keyboard; there would be a new “Apple cloud” to connect devices together, because the tablet would only cache data; there would be a radically new iPod and iPhone; the new "iTouch" software would run on the iPhone and also the Mac; Google would be on stage for the announcement to proclaim its support, and Apple and Google would proclaim mutual support; publishers would do the same; there wouldn't be USB on the new device.
Well, score 2 of 9: no USB port, and some leading (mostly games) publishers. He'd have done better to crowdsource it. That's not particularly to pick on Winer, who throws out ideas at a furious rate; he's just indicative of the remarkable output of the rumour mill.
A tablet that you can watch and read stuff on? That's been predicted already! We've got to go further - and predict an Apple cloud! Not that Apple has been making the sort of massive investments that would allow it to build serious cloud systems.
Much has been made of its recent purchases of streaming music site Lala.com, and of the mobile advertising company Quattro Wireless. And even though those purchases were only confirmed (and completed) this month, of course Apple should have rolled them into new products and services that would be announced three weeks later.
That's the thing about Apple. Ten years ago it was a hobbling company that was struggling to pull in $1bn of sales in the Christmas quarter, on which it lost $195m. Miserable fans would start rumours because they hoped that if they imagined something wonderful, something they would buy, that Apple might make it, make humungous profits, and everything would be good.
Nine months - a gestation - after that press release, Apple released the iPod. And things improved slowly, and then dramatically, and now it's a rocket. But that's not enough; people still set it the most ambitious targets (iTouch software that will run on both the iPhone and the Mac? Really?) because they think it can - and they still want to buy it.
So Apple will never run out of rumoured products to release. But many, many, many of those unicorns will forever remain in the forest. The question for Apple now, in fact, is quite how to tie together the pieces that it is carefully building. Nick Carr, who has remarked perceptively on how the cloud is taking over, observes that “The transformation in the nature of computing has turned the old-style PC into a dinosaur” and that “Today, Jobs's ambitions are grander than ever. His overriding goal is to establish his company as the major conduit, and toll collector, between the media cloud and the networked computer. Jobs doesn't just want to produce glamorous gizmos. He wants to be the impresario of all media.”
As the people in the record industry, bruised from seeing Apple transform from a company that they indulged by granting it a licence to sell downloaded music into one that is the biggest seller of music in the US, and the people in the mobile networks, who have been browbeaten into offering iPhone users truly unlimited bandwidth (where they can supply it), could tell you, it's quite enough dealing with the products Apple actually does release without worrying about the unicorns still in its cupboard.
So despite all the years that book, magazine and newspaper publishers have been wishing for a system where they could get paid for producing content over the internet, it might be best not to embrace it too tightly.
These unicorns that Apple releases turn out to be wild rides; and people get trampled once they're running.