When asked to sum up the consistently seductive powers of the company that brought the world the iPod and the iPhone, a glassy-eyed devotee once said: "I'll buy almost anything if it's shiny and made by Apple."

The unshakeable disciple of Apple Inc was in reality an actor appearing in a spoof video by the American satirical newspaper, The Onion, about an exciting new Mac computer which allowed users to bypass the traditional need for a raised keyboard to input information.

Now, in a curious example of hi-tech life imitating art, the internet is alive with fevered speculation that Steve Jobs, the company's totemic chief executive, is about to redefine computing - and the existence of millions of consumers - by unveiling a revolutionary machine which, among other innovations, does not feature a traditional keyboard.

Months, if not years, of rumour about the next alluring gadget to emerge from Apple's headquarters near San Francisco have reached a climax in recent days with the expectation that Mr Jobs, who recently returned to work after a liver transplant, is set to launch a touch-screen "Tablet" computer used for web surfing, reading newspapers and watching videos that will fill the gap in size and price between the iPhone and the cheapest Mac laptop.

The Wall Street Journal yesterday added further credence to the avalanche of blogs and tweets on the subject by revealing that a reinvigorated Mr Jobs, who micro-managed the launch of the iPhone in 2007 - now its fastest-selling product, has devoted nearly all his energies to the development of the Tablet machine since his return at the end of June.

Such is the 54-year-old chief executive's attention to detail that he has previously killed off two versions of the Tablet - first acknowledged to be in development in 2003 - because of a lack of battery life and memory.

The technology that saw the creation the iPhone and its touch-screen interface is thought to be at the heart of the new computer, which is needed by Apple to counter the stagnating market for iPods and high-end laptops.

In an email to the paper, Mr Jobs insisted that "much of your information is incorrect" but pointedly failed to deny the existence of the Tablet or rumours that an announcement could come as soon as next month.

Apple declined to answer questions about the existence of the Tablet, saying it "does not comment on rumour and speculation".

Hard facts are difficult to come by precisely because the company has a long record of shrouding its new products in secrecy until the moment Mr Jobs steps in front of a crowd dressed in his trademark garb of a black polo-neck and jeans to provide a live tutorial in front of an adoring crowd.

The result of such carefully calculated pre-launch reticence is an entire industry of Mac-related bloggers and analysts who fill the void of information from Apple, which last year made a profit of US$4.8bn, with a blizzard of comment and insight - some of it subsequently proven to be accurate - about goings-on in the company's secure laboratories.

Leander Khaney, author of the Cult of Mac blog, said: "They've been working on this for the past six years. People expect it to be the ultimate Apple surprise. This thing will knock people's socks off."

The precise specifications of the Tablet remain unknown.

- THE INDEPENDENT