Now that Apple (AAPL) has announced a release date for its forthcoming iPad tablet, the hype -- soon to turn to hysteria -- has begun in earnest. Apple shares soared nearly 4% Friday after the company said the device will be available on April 3.

But Apple's archenemy Microsoft (MSFT) isn't just sitting back. Redmond is planning an answer in the form of its nifty-looking Courier device (pictured), photos of which surfaced Friday.

Microsoft has its work cut out for it. Not since Apple released its iPhone three years ago has a new gadget produced so many hosannas as the iPad. Its development has been a long road for Apple, but analysts already predict it will be a blockbuster.

IPad Could Add $2 Billion In Revenue

"Apple has invested not just 10 years of research and development but 10 years of consumer education too," Altimeter Group analyst Michael Gartenberg told the Associated Press. "They've taught consumers about digital music, multi-touch [screens] and video. It would surprise me if it didn't sell 3 million to 4 million units" this year.

At $500 to $800 a pop, the iPad could add an astounding $2 billion in Apple's top-line growth this year. Publishers are lining up to develop iPad-formatted content, and developers are chomping at the bit to create applications for the product. Customers can begin placing orders for the device next Friday.

"iPad is something completely new," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in a statement. "We're excited for customers to get their hands on this magical and revolutionary product and connect with their apps and content in a more intimate, intuitive and fun way than ever before."

Microsoft Preparing iPad Rival

Microsoft clearly sees the potential in the tablet market, and it's not waiting around to have its keister kicked by Apple, as it did for years with the runaway iPod. On Friday, tech blog Engadget published new details and pictures of Microsoft's forthcoming Courier device. It appears to be designed in a book-like shape, with opposing screens attached by a hinge.

"The interface appears to be pen-based and centered around drawing and writing, with built-in handwriting recognition and a corresponding website that allows access to everything entered into the device in a blog-like format complete with comments," Engadget reported.

"We're also hearing that there will be a built-in camera, and there's a headphone jack for media playback. Most interestingly, it looks like the Courier will also serve as Microsoft's e-book device, with a dedicated ecosystem centered around reading," the blog said. Engadget predicts a release date in the second half of 2010, presumably to take advantage of the holiday shopping season.

Microsoft's Courier certainly looks like a sweet device. But given the hype surrounding the iPad, betting against Apple in this cage-match may not be advisable.

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