Apple unveils tablet, dubbed iPad, starting at $500

Apple's worst-kept secret is finally out in the open.

Apple iPadApple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the company's breathlessly anticipated new tablet device, called the iPad, at a media event in San Francisco. The device, which looks like a larger version of the iPod touch, will come with both WiFi and 3G wireless data from AT&T. There is a microphone on the device, but no cellular voice component. Users will be able to surf the Web, check email and watch videos on the iPad, among other features.

Hailing the device as something that could bridge the gap between laptops and smartphones, Jobs said the iPad is "so much more intimate than a laptop, so much more capable than a smartphone."

Jobs said there will be two 3G data plans from AT&T available for the iPad: $14.99 per month for 250 MB and an unlimited data plan for $29.99 per month. The services will be prepaid, allowing users to cancel at any time, and will include access to AT&T's WiFi network. Users can activate the wireless service directly on the device.

A WiFi-only version of the iPad will be available in two months, while the WiFi/3G version will be available in three months. A physical keyboard will be available separately.

The WiFi-only devices will be sold for $499 for a 16 GB model, $599 for 32 GB and $699 for 64 GB. The 3G models will run at $629 for the 16 GB model, $729 for the 32 GB and $829 for 64 GB version. Jobs said the company would detail international 3G carrier deals by June or July. The device is fully unlocked and supports GSM micro-SIM cards.

The iPad has a 9.7-inch capacitive, fingerprint-resistant touchscreen display, is 0.5 inches thick, weighs 1.5 lbs. and sports a 1 GHz processor built by Apple. The device has built-in speakers and a microphone, but no camera, and can get up 10 hours of battery life when surfing the Web on WiFi. The iPad syncs to PCs and Macs like iPhones do, and users can upload photos, videos and contacts in much the same way as they do for the iPhone.

Jobs said the device will have built-in access to Apple's App Store, and will be able to run iPhone apps out of the box. Additionally, it will have access to iTunes and a new store, called iBooks, which will deliver ebooks from from major publishers. The device also allows users to use iWork, Apple's desktop software. Individual iWork applications will be sold for $9.99 each.

"The question has arisen lately: Is there room for a third category of device in the middle, something that's between a laptop and smartphone," Jobs said. "Those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks. What kind of tasks? Well, things like browsing the Web, doing e-mail, enjoying and sharing photographs, watching videos, playing games."

Some analysts were skeptical of the market for such a device. "My question is how big of a market this is, and it's probably reasonably big," Michael Yoshikami, an analyst at YCMNet Advisors, told Bloomberg. "I'm still getting my hands around how many people are going to want something of this size."

Others questioned whether or not the iPad could lure potential netbook buyers. "Apple might still be right that there is meaningful demand for a device that resides between the phone and the laptop, but if they are, the iPad-- despite its beauty and impressiveness as a feat of hardware and software engineering--isn't it," Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin said. "The significant discount on 3G connectivity versus netbooks won't be enough to sway the majority of pending netbook buyers, especially considering the price premium for a well-equipped and always-on version of the iPad." 

Mark Lowenstein, the managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, said there appears to be no value-added services from the wireless connectivity, other than its role as a "pipe." "The structure is actually more like the Nexus One (minus the subsidy/ contract option) than the iPhone, and shows that wireless operators are now running two businesses: a full-service retail business with their own stamp on devices, the user experience, content, and applications," he said, "and a wholesale business, where there will be myriad devices connected to their networks, each with a distinct business model."

Apple introduced the iPad two days after its posted a record quarterly profit. Apple shares were up $2.94 to $208.88 per share in late-afternoon trading.

For more:
- see these photos
- see this release
- see this Bloomberg article 
- see this Engdagdet live blog
- see this WSJ live blog

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