by Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

Today Apple finally unveiled its tablet computer, the iPad. Thus concludes Phase 1 of the standard Apple new-category roll-out: months of feverish speculation and hype online, without any official indication by Apple that the product even exists.

Now Phase 2 can begin: the bashing by the bloggers who’ve never even tried it: “No physical keyboard!” “No removable battery!” “Way too expensive!” “Doesn’t multitask!” “No memory-card slot!”

That will last until the iPad actually goes on sale in April. Then, if history is any guide, Phase 3 will begin: positive reviews, people lining up to buy the thing, and the mysterious disappearance of the basher-bloggers.

The iPad is, as predicted, essentially a giant iPod Touch: aluminum-backed, half-inch thin, with a 10-inch screen surrounded by a shiny black border. At the bottom, there’s the standard iPod/iPhone connector and a single Home button. It will be available in models ranging from 457.76€ (16 gigs of memory, Wi-Fi) to761.4€ (64 gigs of memory, Wi-Fi and 3G cellular).

The cellular signal will be provided by AT&T for 13.76€ a month (250 megabytes of data transferred — think e-mail only) or 27.52€ a month, unlimited. Amazingly, those AT&T deals involve no contract. You can cancel whenever you like. And since this thing isn’t a phone, you don’t have to worry about dropped calls; you’re paying exclusively for Internet service.

There’s no reason you couldn’t use it to make calls using Skype, of course — Apple says that virtually all of the existing 140,000 iPhone apps run fine on the iPad. (You can run them either at regular tiny size, or blown up double with some loss of clarity.)

Then again, you might look a little bizarre walking through the airport holding this giant clipboard up to your ear.

Until I saw the demo, I wondered why you’d want an iPad instead of a laptop. After all, the price is about the same. And once you add a carrying case to the iPad — wouldn’t you worry about that glass screen bouncing around in your briefcase or backpack naked? — it’s about the same bulk and weight as a laptop.

Now, though, it looks like Apple really has created something new. Criticisms of “Like a laptop” and “a big iPod Touch” don’t really do justice to the possibilities.

The iPad as an e-book reader is a no-brainer. It’s just infinitely better-looking and more responsive than the Kindle, not to mention it has color and doesn’t require external illumination. (Book fans should note, however, that the iPad e-bookstore won’t offer bestsellers at 9.17€ each, like Amazon and Barnes & Noble do. And although Apple says the iPad has a 10-hour battery life, it hasn’t yet said “doing what.” Playing video eats up battery a lot faster than reading e-books.)

Web browsing, painting programs, TV and movies, newspapers and magazines all seem like naturals on this 1.5-pound machine, too. The New York Times app is especially appealing to me — and yes, this is my completely independent opinion — because it seems to work like the much-adored Times Reader app for computers.

Overall, the iPad seems like a dream screen for reading and watching—at some loss of convenience in creating. True, there’s an on-screen keyboard, big enough to type on with both hands in the usual way. And Apple will offer a specialized multitouch word processor, spreadsheet and presentation app for 9.17€ each. But I’m guessing that, with no mouse and no physical keys to feel, writing and editing will be more effort than on a laptop. (Apple will also sell an external keyboard that holds the iPad upright as you type. Then again, if you need to carry all that around, maybe a laptop would make more sense.)

But these are just the wild speculations of a guy who’s never even tried the thing. (Believe me, I’ll review it when I get one.)

My main message to fanboys is this: it’s too early to draw any conclusions. Apple hasn’t given the thing to any reviewers yet, there are no iPad-only apps yet (there will be), the e-bookstore hasn’t gone online yet, and so on. So hyperventilating is not yet the appropriate reaction.

At the same time, the bashers should be careful, too. As we enter Phase 2, remember how silly you all looked when you all predicted the iPhone’s demise in that period before it went on sale.

Like the iPhone, the iPad is really a vessel, a tool, a 1.5-pound sack of potential. It may become many things. It may change an industry or two, or it may not. It may introduce a new category — something between phone and laptop — or it may not. And anyone