Dave Oberholzer has been tracking his iPad since it left China a couple of days ago on its way to his Maryland home.
The wireless industry consultant, who lives in Brookeville, can't wait to try out the new device, but he figures his gadget-loving daughters will monopolize it and that he won't get the most use out of it until traveling for work.
"They're going to be all over it," quipped Oberholzer, 42. "There's no doubt. I'll barely be able to touch the thing."
Few companies can get consumers so excited that they'll buy a product they haven't actually touched, yet that's what Apple Inc. has managed to do with its iPad. Observers and analysts have estimated the company pre-sold hundreds of thousands of the devices before its debut Saturday — a launch that could be bigger than the iPhone's introduction three years ago.
Meanwhile, Apple Stores and Best Buy locations in Maryland and across the country are expecting steady lines and crowds as eager buyers and curious consumers jockey to be among the first to handle the device on the open market. Apple hasn't disclosed how many of the devices each store will have in stock, making it difficult to gauge whether every person who wants one will be able to buy it Saturday or even next week.
Anticipating a consumer frenzy, officials with the Towson Town Center and Mall in Columbia said they plan to dispatch security around the Apple Stores in those locations.
Sam Elowitch, 40, of Rockville, wishes he had pre-ordered an iPad. He planned to wait at an Apple Store in Bethesda starting at 6 a.m. Saturday for the chance to buy one. He'll bring a chair, magazines and some snacks to help him get through the day. But there's no guarantee he'll end up with one, despite the wait.
"I will be mildly disappointed," Elowitch said of how he'd feel if he didn't snag one. "Hopefully with age has come a bit of wisdom and patience."
The launch of the iPad has been carefully choreographed by Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., which unveiled it in late January after years of industry speculation. The company is famous for keeping its new products under a thick veil of secrecy, and the iPad's launch is no different.
The iPad, which will offer electronic books, Internet browsing, and video and audio playback, is the first major entrant into the tablet computer market, a segment where analysts expect to see a revival this year and next. The device's signature feature is that it can be entirely controlled through finger touches on its 9.7-inch screen.
Starting at $499, the iPad will compete against electronic book readers, such as Amazon's Kindle, and small laptops known as netbooks. Microsoft and Google are also designing software to run tablet devices from other manufacturers.
Customers who pre-ordered the device had two options: have it delivered to their home or to an Apple Store for pickup. For those who didn't pre-order, there's still a chance to buy one. Expect two lines at Apple Stores: one for those who pre-ordered and another for consumers who hope to buy one on the spot.
Maryland consumers have five Apple Stores in the state to choose from, and eight Best Buy stores that sell Apple products. Best Buy will sell the iPad in what it describes as "limited quantities."
Charles Ostrander, manager for the mobile division at the Best Buy store in White Marsh, said he expects shoppers to line up well before the store opens at 10 a.m. Store clerks will hand out tickets to help manage the crowds.
"There's definitely going to be a lot of excitement around it," Ostrander said. "I have a feeling we're going to get a big turnout."
Rene F. Daniel, a principal at Baltimore retail brokerage Trout Daniel & Associates, said the limited quantities will only make people want the iPad more.
"I think it increases demand," he said. "I think it makes it more desirable or unattainable to the masses. It makes it appear exclusive."
Though sales numbers have not been disclosed by Apple, industry observers believe that the company will sell millions of iPads by the end of the year — with an increasing number sold in subsequent years. iSuppli, a California electronics market research firm, forecasts that Apple will sell seven million iPads this year, 14.4 million next year and 20.1 million in 2012.
Larger than a cell phone and smaller than a laptop, the iPad doesn't have a camera, can't play Web videos in the popular Flash format, and can't handle multiple applications at the same time. Netbooks, on the other hand, are more versatile.
"It's not a computer, it's not a phone, it's not an iPod," said Stephen Baker, an analyst with the research firm NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y. "It does a whole bunch of different things."
Baker added: "The challenge for the industry in general is settling back and seeing what consumers end up doing with this. Do they use it in coffee shops on the go, or is it mostly a sit-on-the-couch kind of device?"
Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. Walker contributed to this report.