Oh boy, adding to the spiraling whirl of Apple Tablet rumors it looks like the number two exec at cell-phone network Orange France has basically confirmed the iSlate is real, it's coming soon, and it'll have a global launch.
The news is coming via an interview given by Stéphane Richard on Europe 1 this morning. Richard is a senior exec at France Telecom/Orange, and as part of a longer discussion he was thrown this sudden question: "According to the weekly Le Point, in a short while your partner Apple is going to launch a tablet..." This could easily have been dismissed by Richard as idle speculation masquerading as a leading question. But Richard simply responded "oui..."
And thus came the next question, again speculative, but definitely mining for the right kind of info: "...with a Webcam..." Which got another "Oui" from Richard. And then came the interesting bit:
Interviewer: "And Orange users will be able to benefit from this too?"
Richard: "Of course!"
Basically, given three opportunities to either deflect the questions by saying "well, nobody knows..." or flatly deny the speculation, or even to squirm out of a direct answer like a politician, Richard chose not to. Or he forgot not to. Or he was allowed to leak some info by Apple. He was even enthusiastic about the matter--though note that, despite some of the mis-translated excitement about this elsewhere online, Richard didn't agree it was due in a "couple of days", instead that "quelques jours" (which aligns more with "someday soon") supports more the January announcement/March launch rumors we've been hearing recently.
Why should we pay attention to Richard's words? Because Orange is a senior player in the global cell-phone game--it controls vast grids in Europe and Africa, and with all its subsidiaries lumped together it's actually the world's fifth biggest operator. It's also a key iPhone distributor, and one that was chosen by Apple for early iPhone love before the multicarrier model really took off in Euroland.
Admittedly these are just off-the-cuff words. But if you add them to similar-feeling confidently assertive statements by The New York Time's Bill Keller back in October (noting that Keller even called it the "Apple slate") and the slew of detailed leaks that seem to be popping up at the moment, it really is going to get gadget fan's blood pumping. Particularly exciting is the fact that this concerns an imminent arrival of the gizmo in France--suggesting an international launch at the same time, which is different to the strategy Apple employed for the iPhone.
Update: Here's the video feed for your interest, in French of course.
It's clear from the video that Richard is a little off-balanced by these questions, and you could perhaps assume he's speaking as speculatively as the interviewer himself. But he definitely mentions video calling, and the necessary infrastructure changes to support the increased data load, and that rules out that he's talking about iPhones.