It's the iPad

$499 price and optional keyboard make the tablet a big winner, says analyst

The iBooks functionality on Apple's new iPad

The iBooks functionality on Apple's new iPad

Apple CEO Steve Jobs today unveiled the iPad, calling the tablet a "magical and revolutionary" addition to the company's existing lines of Macs, iPods and the iPhone.

Priced starting at $499 but with the top-end configuration listed at $829, the iPad will be available within 60 days. The tablet sports a 9.7-in. LCD display, putting to rest rumors of a smaller-sized display that would supposedly use the more advanced, power-saving OLED technology .

"This is a true personal computer with the first radically different operating system since the original Mac in 1984," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "This is absolutely the right answer by Apple to netbooks. If you want the Apple experience, but don't want to pay $1,000 for a MacBook, here it is."

Jobs also announced what he called a "breakthrough deal" with AT&T to provide 3G connectivity for the iPad using two pre-paid plans: a $14.99 plan that allows up to 250GB of data monthly, and a $29.99 unlimited data plan. iPad users do not have to sign a contract with AT&T, Jobs added, and can cancel at any time without penalty.

iPad models with 3G capability will be priced $130 more than their WiFi-only cousins: The 16GB iPad without 3G costs $499, for example, while the 16GB model with 3G runs $629.

Ship dates will also vary depending on whether consumers want a WiFi-only or 3G-capable iPad. The former will go on sale in 60 days, said Jobs, or near the end of March, while the latter will follow 30 days after that, in late April.

After claiming that Apple is the world's largest mobile devices company -- by adding iPod, iPhone and Mac notebook revenues -- Jobs rhetorically asked the question that many analysts have tried to answer.

"Is there room for a third category of device in the middle?" Jobs asked. "Something that's between a laptop and smartphone?" If there was, Jobs continued, it needed to be more than either. "This device needs to be better than a laptop or a smartphone ... or it has no reason for being."

Gottheil said he thought Apple nailed it. "We're getting what I was hoping, something that's not a Mac, not a Windows PC, something that isn't complicated to use. I don't have to know about folders, I just want to use it."

Key, said Gottheil, was Apple's decision to use a variation of the iPhone OS for the iPad. "Some 40 million people have figured out how to use [that OS] without much handholding," he noted. "I want this to be simple, and with the iPhone OS, it is. That's the killer feature."

During the 90-minute unveiling, Jobs and other Apple executives demonstrated the iPad's capabilities to prove their point that the tablet is better than either a laptop or a phone, at least at a host of applications, ranging from Web browsing and games to movie watching and e-books .

"But this isn't the Kindle killer than some were expecting," said Gottheil. "It's portable and a useful size, but I think it's too heavy and too thick to be an e-book reader killer."

In many ways, the iPad resembles an overgrown iPhone -- the "iPod Touch on steroids" that some analysts, including Gottheil, had predicted last year -- down to the touch-enabled display and the appearance of only one button, the Home button, on the device.

The iPad weighs approximately 1.5 pounds, is about half an inch thick, and is based on a 1GHz Apple-designed processor, which Jobs dubbed the Apple A4. "It's powered by our own silicon," said Jobs, "[and] it screams." Although Jobs did not specifically say so, the chip was likely created by P.A. Semi , the Santa Clara, Calif. boutique microprocessor design company Apple acquired in 2008.

Multiple models of the iPad will be available, with prices dependent on the amount of flash memory. Apple will sell the tablet in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models for $499, $599 and $699, respectively with WiFi only, but for $629, $729 and $829 with both WiFi and 3G.

Jobs claimed that the iPad's battery would last approximately 10 hours while playing video, and remain in standby mode for up to a month without recharging. "I can take a flight form San Francisco to Tokyo and watch video the whole way," he said.

As many had predicted, including a metric firm that detected dozens of unidentified devices running at Apple's Cupertino, Calif. campus since last October, the iPad runs a variation of the iPhone OS. Apple will release a modified iPhone SDK (software developer kit) later today that has been enhanced to support iPad development, said Scott Forstall, the senior vice president of iPhone software.

Most existing iPhone applications can run as is on the new iPad, Forstall added, in either an expanded mode or in a small, iPhone-sized frame.

The iPad's e-book capabilities, which Jobs compared with Amazon's Kindle, come courtesy of a built-in app named iBook. Tablet users can download electronic books -- they're in the ePub format -- from an iTunes-like bookstore that's populated with titles by major publishers including Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Penguin. To flip a page, readers simply tap anywhere on the right (to go forward a page) or on the left (to go back) side of the iPad screen.

ePub is an open standard maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum .

Apple has also created an iPad-specific version of its iWork productivity suite, which includes a word processor, presentation maker and spreadsheet. Each of the three applications -- Pages, Keynote and Numbers -- will cost $9.99 to download from the iPad's App Store, said Philip Schiller, Apple's head of marketing. For text and data entry in iWork's applications, the iPad uses what Jobs and Schiller called an "almost life-sized" on-screen keyboard.

Apple will also sell iPad accessories, including a Kindle-style cover, a docking/recharging station and a keyboard dock that offers a full-sized Apple-style keyboard.

"The price and the keyboard, that's what puts the iPad over the top," Gottheil argued. "For some, this can be a full-fledged MacBook substitute. There will be some chewing away of the iPod Touch below and the MacBook above, but the net is that this greatly expands Apple's market.

"This has the potential of bringing in even more people into the Applesphere," Gottheil concluded.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , send e-mail to gkeizer@ix.netcom.com or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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