Apple is expected to unveil its latest iPad on Wednesday at a San Francisco media event that should drive the craze for all things Apple to even greater levels of intensity.

Apple is keeping characteristically quiet ahead of the rollout, but few tech pundits doubt that the time has come for the world’s most valuable company to rejuvenate one of its fattest cash cows.

The company introduced the first iPad in April 2010, when Steve Jobs was still at the helm, and his predictions that the new tablet computers heralded the start of a post-PC revolution came true even quicker than he could have imagined.

By the time the iPad 2 rolled out in March 2011, more than 15 million of the pioneering devices had been sold, representing over 80 per cent of all tablet computer sales.

The iPad 2 was even more successful, having sold some 40 million units, including 15 million in the last quarter alone. This year’s sales are expected to be around the 60 million mark. “People have been waiting to get the new iPad,” Shaw Wu, an analyst with Sterne, Agee said in a research note. “There’s real pent—up demand.” The stellar sales have occurred at the same time as sales of PCs have been plummeting. Though they still outnumber tablet sales by almost six to one, many analysts say it’s only a question of time before tablet sales reverse the statistic as both consumers and businesses see the tablet light.

“It’s astonishing how fast the product has spread through business, education and health care,” Charles Wolf, an analyst with Needham & Co, told USA Today.

Though Apple will likely be the major beneficiary of the trend that it ignited, its competitors are looking increasingly hungry for a bite of the tablet pie.

Amazon.com is estimated to have sold some 4 million units of its entry-level tablet since launching the device in late 2011, while tablets powered by Google’s Android operating system, and made by the likes of Samsung, Lenovo, Acer and Asus, are looking like increasingly strong competitors.

The big elephant in the tablet room is Microsoft, which has won unusually warm plaudits for its Windows 8 operating system. That will launch later this year and has been optimized to run both tablets and traditional PCs with the same ease of use.

“There’s no question that Apple will soon have a real fight on its hands,” noted the Christian Science Monitor in an article that listed ten major advantages of Windows 8, including greater personalization, better multitasking, superfast browsing, optimized keyboard use and Xbox integration.

Apple has long scoffed at rumours of purported “iPad killers” but this time it does have to take its rivals seriously. Though the iPad 3 will no doubt continue to dominate tablet sales, it needs to be far ahead of the bunch if it wants to preserve its massive dominance till the next upgrade cycle.

Bloggers and pundits have been blowing much hot air about what the iPad 3 will actually offer.

But there seems to be a good deal of consensus that it will feature a high-definition screen, a sharper camera and more powerful processor than the current version. Many are also predicting a software update to iOS 6, and the tablet debut of Apple’s popular digital assistant Siri, which is currently available only on the iPhone.

The introduction of the new model may also be hailed by consumers and businesses not interested in bleeding edge technology. It might mean a price drop for the iPad 2 of 100 dollars to 399 dollars, making it far more attractive to budget-conscious buyers.

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Apple launches new iPadMarch 8, 2012