WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Apple's iPad has generated a flood of hype since its unveiling in January, but a day ahead of its official launch the crowds have yet to arrive, a contrast to the iPhone launch three years ago.
At mid-afternoon Friday, only a smattering of customers had lined up at stores in New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In fairness, unlike the iPhone's debut in 2007, there wasn't necessarily any reason to stand in line for the iPad ahead of Saturday's 9 a.m. launch, at least for those who planned ahead.
Apple has been taking pre-orders for the iPad since mid-March, guaranteeing those who ordered online that they would get one of the company's new tablet devices on Saturday, either for pickup at a store or via home delivery.
IPad sellouts are widely expected this weekend. Pre-orders may have made the iPad launch more efficient for customers, but it may have also succeeded in reducing some of the buzz generated by hordes of people standing in line a day before.
Of course, there are always some folks hearty enough to wait overnight. At Apple's flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York, around 10 people were in line Friday afternoon. They came armed with beach chairs, umbrellas, jackets, McDonald's fast food, camping mats and other first-day-of-sale survival gear.
The iPad is Apple's most important launch since the iPhone. Wall Street is keen to gauge consumer response to the device, and the crowds at Apple stores this weekend could provide an early indication of its popular appeal.
It was all quiet at the Apple store on upscale Bolyston Street in Boston at midday.
Visiting Londoners Mark and Angela Rebbettes said at the store that they would likely swing back by on Saturday morning and try to get a look at the iPad.
"I think everyone's interested," said Mark Rebbettes, a salesman. Ultimately he thought he would buy one, although she didn't understand the point of the device.
Analysts say the company has already received several hundred thousands pre-orders, with first year sales estimated at anywhere from 4 million to 7 million.
Apple has staked much of its reputation on the iPad, pitched as a revolutionary new category of device: a lightweight mobile computer that strives to combine the best attributes of a smartphone and a laptop.
The iPad is a sleek 9.7-inch touchscreen tablet that resembles an oversized iPhone and runs on the same operating system. It starts at $499 for a short-range Wi-Fi model and tops out at more than $800 for a high-speed, go-anywhere 3G-enabled version.
It is designed for consuming all sorts of media, from games and video, to electronic books and magazines. Analysts say content deals are key to the iPad's success.
The iPad can use most of the roughly 150,000 apps already available for the iPhone, and more than 1,000 new iPad apps are ready to go on launch day.
IPad apps include an offering from Netflix to stream movies and one from Walt Disney's ABC network that features TV shows.
There is also a slew of games from developers such as Electronic Arts and startup ngmoco. Many analysts expect the iPad to provide stiff competition for Nintendo's DS and Sony's PSP handheld gaming devices.
In addition, iPad apps from the New York Times and News Corp's Wall Street Journal will offer some access to content from the two newspapers.
Apple is also launching its own digital book business that will compete with Amazon.com's Kindle.
The iPhone set a high bar for product launches, with sales passing the 1 million mark within 74 days. Apple sold more than 2 million in the holiday quarter that year.
But IPad expectations keep climbing by the day. On Friday research group iSuppli said it expects first-year shipments to hit 7 million in 2010. Many Wall Street analysts expect Apple to sell 1 million or more iPad's in the June quarter.
Reviews of the iPad has been largely positive, emphasizing its ample battery life and ease of use.
Saturday's iPad launch is only in the United States and only for the Wi-Fi model. It will be available in nine other countries later this month.
Apple's stock is up around 10 percent this year and has been setting new all-time highs. Analysts say that regardless of how well the launch goes, its shares are likely to slip next week as investors cash in profits.
Reporting by Gabriel Madway; additional reporting by Ros Krasny in Boston, Michelle Nichols in New York, Alexandria Sage in San Francisco and Edwin Chan in Los Angeles; Editing by Steve Orlofsky