If reports are true, Steve Jobs has been quoted as saying that this device represents "the most important thing I've ever done". This comes from the guy who, to recruit John Sculley to Apple from Pepsi was quoted as saying "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?"
By any measure this statement forebodes something quite impressive. Consider his past achievements. Apple's boilerplate explains what he's helped bring about there:
Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s with the Apple II and reinvented the personal computer in the 1980s with the Macintosh. Today, Apple continues to lead the industry in innovation with its award-winning computers, OS X operating system and iLife and professional applications. Apple is also spearheading the digital media revolution with its iPod portable music and video players and iTunes online store, and has entered the mobile phone market with its revolutionary iPhone.
Let's not forget his other accomplishments, which include his visionary founding of Pixar, a company he built from inception to eventual sale to Disney, not to mention abiding characters and entertainment driving and defining technologies and techniques and a genre of motion pictures that has literally transformed the landscape of animation.
One might argue that Apple, with Steve at the helm, has transformed the widely reviled music industry (led by the myopic RIAA who at the time couldn't conceive of digital delivery, thinking the CD was the end-all-be-all of digital music, and who equated digital downloads with piracy and reveled in suing its own customers), into a vibrant marketplace for music with first the domination of the portable music player industry with the iPod and then subsequently creating a digital music marketplace in the iTunes music store.
What can Steve have up his sleeve that represents something "most important"? Maybe it will be the low cost of a hot product subsidized by cellular companies (to be mobile it's gotta have 3G, right?). Or a game changing revolution in form factor/size/weight, similar to what the iPod did to MP3 players. Or a unique platform for digital convergence that people have been talking about for well over a decade. Or perhaps it might enable Steve to sweep in and redefine an industry that has been paralyzed to make the changes it needs to survive the new marketplace.
If any of the media reports act as a barometer to give us an indication of what hand Steve is holding, I think it's the latter. Rupert Murdoch has made no secret of his distaste for the repackaging of their primary asset by aggregators like Google (love him or hate him, one need only look at the fate of many newspapers around the country to realize he has a point) .
Steve Jobs appears to be currently trying to do the same with television. Rumors are swirling around magazine and newspaper content Harper Collins, McGraw Hill and Time (see video below) that the tablet will be oriented around books, television, and traditionally printed content.
So my guess is, Steve has found a way to bring content of all kinds into a super-sized iPhone that makes it actually enjoyable to consume all kinds of media on it. The iPhone has too small a display to read a newspaper. It's not a convenient device on which to watch any videos longer than a minute. Browsing web pages requires sacrifices in terms of the browser capabilities, from flash restrictions to tiny screens and small fonts.
If you could get a laptop that had the ease of use of an iPhone in half the form factor (no keyboard needed in a tablet), does that begin to sound compelling? What if it had 24/7/365 internet access, nearly everywhere? I'm guessing that it's not that this device will change what you can do with your life, it's that it will enable those activities in places and times when you never thought you'd be using a device.
Time (about 12 hours worth) will certainly tell.