I don’t underestimate Apple’s ability to create unprecedented stuff, and to make it much better than anyone imagined. Yet for all the breathlessness about the supposed Apple tablet, no one seems to be asking the right questions.

First, what problem is it trying to solve? We know what problems laptops and smartphones solve. What’s the tablet solving?

Is it a “third” device? The first device that you are willing to carry is your mobile phone; the second is your laptop. If the tablet replaces neither of these things, will you carry around a third device?

Will it leave the house? Are you going to walk around the mall with this thing?

Given these questions…

We can assume that its main purpose is not as a communication device. Video conferencing and Facebook are not why you buy it. (At home, your computer does a better job. Outside, your iPhone is more handy.)

It will also not be a laptop replacement. You won’t do spreadsheets or compose presentations on it. (It will do those things, you wouldn’t buy it for that reason. Your laptop does a better job.)

You won’t kick back and watch a movie on this thing. (Again, you could, but your TV does a better job of it.)

That leaves us with one killer app: publications.

You are already carrying one or more of those (book, magazine, newspaper), so this obviates the third-device problem. It might leave the house, but not all the time. And the problem it’s trying to solve is that paper sucks.

Paper is not searchable or updatable and does not integrate with other media. And it takes up space. Paper is, however, very readable, portable and user-friendly, and for those reasons, it is still a mainstream medium.

This implies, then, that the tablet must be a Kindle on steroids: publications, yes, but with interactivity and apps that enhance the reading experience enough that people will give up paper. Which brings us to…

Will the tablet have e-reader software on it? It seems, given the above, that it obviously must. But it can’t be one-size-fits-all, since publications will want to differentiate — if they are to survive, the medium itself must evolve. Fitting into a generic template won’t do.

So the e-reader software will be more of a platform than an app, not unlike a highly purpose-built web browser.

Publications will be responsible for authoring their “tablet editions” in the same way that they have to author their web sites. The platform will offer rich fundamentals (typography, images, audio & video, navigation, subscriptions, DRM) but the content providers will develop the user experience. Publications will compete on both functionality and content.

So the sales pitch in January will be: it’s not just a device, it’s the new publisher’s platform.