The frenzy around Apple’s assumed-to-be-forthcoming tablet computer is reaching a fevered pitch, with major news outlets from the New York Times to the British Broadcasting Corp. covering and feeding the speculation. I haven’t seen this much hyperbole since, oh, the run-up to James Cameron’s new movie, “Avatar.”

The latest hints are that Apple will launch the tablet at the end of January. The rumor mill says that Apple will preview the long-awaited tablet computer, along with significant upgrades to its iPhone software stack and relevant revisions to the Apple App Store.

A common thread to the rumors is that the tablet will be a cross between the iPhone and the MacBook Air notebook computer. That means built-in wireless connectivity on a cellular data network (like the iPhone or Amazon’s Kindle book reader), that it will be sold along with a service plan (again, like the iPhone), and that Apple will create a software distribution channel for it (like the music and applications offered through the App Store).

The company is expected to unveil a developer program for the iTablet (or whatever it’s called). This will be an extension of the iPhone dev program, and will in fact rely upon many of the same tools, SDKs and APIs. The biggest code changes would be in the user interface: A tablet’s screen is much larger than the iPhone display. App developers would need to rework their software not only to leverage the larger screen, but also accommodate the larger format’s user-experience models.

How much truth is in those rumors? It’s hard to be certain. Apple is notorious for its secrecy. In fact, carefully controlled secrecy is one of the main reasons why Apple’s marketing prowess is unparalleled.

The other area where Apple currently excels is in developer relations. That’s a change in its historic behavior, which was hostile to third-party developers.

To digress for a moment, this reminds me of the OS/2 Wars, back in the mid-1990s. IBM’s OS/2 operating system was far superior to DOS and was poised for large-scale growth. However, Microsoft’s technologically inferior Windows 95 took over the market, totally destroying OS/2.

Why did Microsoft win, and mighty IBM lose? For the same two reasons why the iPhone has succeeded beyond all expectations. First, Microsoft was infinitely better at consumer marketing than Big Blue. (Remember how people stood in line at midnight to get their copies of Windows 95? Does that remind you of anything?)