Apple CEO Steve Jobs will unveil a new consumer product that is "innovative, revolutionary and different" during his keynote speech at Macworld Expo, San Francisco on January 7, the company has revealed.

Fuelling speculation about a flat-panel iMac, Apple said the "powerful, user-friendly and eye-catching" product will be launched worldwide and is expected to have an "enormous impact." The statements were made in an invitation sent to journalists in the Netherlands late last week.

Apple won't give out more details.

"We have already been too open, judging by the interest this is generating," said Ton van Garderen, general manager for Apple in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, adding that the Dutch invitation could be "more candid than those sent out in other countries."

LCD order However, analysts earlier this month revealed that Apple has placed a large order for 15-inch flat-panel LCDs (Liquid Crystal Displays) for its all-in-one Mac, according to media reports. Taiwanese laptop manufacturer Quanta Computer claims to have won a contract to manufacture the new iMac.

Earlier this year Apple said it would only ship its computers with LCDs, but didn't specify the iMac at that time. The iMac has not had a major makeover since its launch in 1998.

Van Garderen would not confirm the flat-panel order and declined to say whether Apple feels the iMac is ready for a new look.

Dataquest analyst Brian Gammage said he had heard rumours of a flat-panel iMac. He believes the market's "been expecting an iMac product refresh for some time."

Gammage said he had seen sketches of what is claimed to be the new product on various Mac-enthusiast Web sites and those make the new product look appealing.

"If this is what it will look like it would be an innovative approach to the market. It's an unobtrusive, low-profile unit, which is the direction PCs are headed," he said. "One assumes it will come with wireless input peripherals, building on the AirPort system."

Following the Power Mac G4 Cube debacle, Apple needs a new desktop unit, Gammage claimed: "Given that we saw the Cube go away - it failed to grasp the imagination and the pockets of users - there is a definite requirement for a new desktop PC product," he concluded.

Sales of the iMac have been declining, bringing calls for a refreshed product. In its fourth quarter, ended September 29, Apple said it shipped 294,000 units, slightly down from 306,000 in the third quarter and a significant drop from 571,000 in Apple's last quarter of 2000.