Apple will be opening its retail stores earlier than usual on Friday as it launches its third-generation iPad, a statement on the company’s website confirmed.

The latest iteration of the popular tablet computer, which was unveiled last week, will be available from 8am at Apple stores in the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland and the UK, as well as in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. There are plenty of Apple fans already lining up outside stores eager to get their hands on the new device.

The Cupertino company also said the new iPad will be available for purchase from Best Buy, Radio Shack, Sam’s Club, Target and Walmart, although it wasn’t clear whether it would be stocked from Friday at these locations.

In a statement confirming news of the early opening, Apple also announced a March 23 launch date for a long list of other countries, namely Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macau, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal has reported that the Japanese electronics company Sharp, supplying iPad panels for the first time, has delayed delivery of the screens because of problems getting them to meet Apple’s strict requirements.

If the delay continues, it could affect iPad supplies in the coming months, though the WSJ says the company is hoping to start supplying the panel some time this month, three months later than originally planned. Other iPad panel suppliers include Samsung and LG Display.

The new iPad incorporates Apple’s high-resolution Retina display, a new A5X chip with quad-core graphics and a 5-megapixel iSight camera. The Wi-Fi/4G version supports ultrafast 4G LTE networks in both the US and Canada, and fast 3G networks around the world including those based on HSPA+ and DC-HSDPA.

In the US, the Wi-Fi/4G version of Apple’s tablet will cost $629 for the 16GB model, $729 for the 32GB model and $829 for the 64GB model. For the Wi-Fi only versions, expect to pay $499 for the 16GB model, $599 for the 32GB model and $699 for the 64GB model.

Those interested in getting an Apple tablet but unable to fork out for the latest device will be interested to know that the company is continuing to sell the 16GB iPad 2 for a reasonable $399 for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model, and $529 for the 16GB Wi-Fi/3G version.