iPad, the coolest gizmo is here

Apple is positioning the device, some versions of which will be available in March, as a pioneer in a new genre of computing, somewhere between a laptop and a smartphone. “The bar is pretty high,” Jobs acknowledged. “It has to be far better at doing some key things.”

Half an inch thick and weighing 1 1/2 pounds, the device will vividly display books, newspapers, web sites and videos on a 9.7-inch glass touch screen. Giving media companies another way to sell content, it may herald a new era for publishing.

But the iPad, costing $499 to $829, also lacks some features common in laptops and phones, as technology enthusiasts were quick to point out. To its instant critics, it was little more than an oversize iPod Touch. A camera is notably absent, and Flash, the ubiquitous software that handles video and animation on the Web, does not work on the device.

The event, in typical Apple style, was tightly scripted and heavy on theatrics. But the success of the iPhone, and the hive of rumours and leaks surrounding the iPad, raised expectations and made this perhaps Jobs’s most highly anticipated product unveiling yet. It was one that he clearly cared deeply about. Jobs, a consummate showman, presented the iPad to an enthusiastic crowd of around 800 employees, business partners and journalists, some of whom shoved their way in when the doors opened to grab the best seats. It was only his second public appearance since a leave of absence for health reasons last year.

Jobs posited that the iPad was the best device for certain kinds of computing, like browsing the Web, reading e-books and playing video.

The iPad “is so much more intimate than a laptop, and it’s so much more capable than a smartphone with its gorgeous screen,” he said while presenting the device. “It’s phenomenal to hold the Internet in your hands.”

One question Apple faces is whether there is enough room for another device in the cluttered lives of consumers. “I think this will appeal to the Apple acolytes, but this is essentially just a really big iPod Touch,” said Charles Golvin, an analyst, adding that he expected the iPad to mostly cannibalise the sales of other Apple products.

Golvin said book lovers would continue to opt for lighter, cheaper e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, while people looking for a small Web-ready computer would gravitate toward the budget laptops known as netbooks.

But other analysts say they have heard similar criticism before — once aimed at the iPhone, which has now been bought by more than 42 million people around the world. These believers say Apple’s judgment on the market is nearly infallible.

“The target audience is everyone,” said Michael Gartenberg, vice president for strategy and analysis at Interpret, a market research firm. “Apple does not build products for just the enthusiasts. It doesn’t build for the tens of thousands; it builds for the tens of millions.”

Apple says the iPad will run the 140,000 applications developed for the iPhone and the iPod Touch, but the company expects a new wave of programs tailored to the iPad.
One of the most significant applications for the iPad may be Apple’s own creation, called iBooks, an e-reading program that will connect to Apple’s new online e-bookstore.
Publishers will be able to charge $12.99 to $14.99 for most general fiction and nonfiction books.

Three models of the iPad, $499 to $699, will connect to the Internet only via a local Wi-Fi connection. Three other versions will include 3G wireless access,  available later in the spring, costing an additional $130 and requiring a data plan from AT&T.

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