Apple Unveils $499 iPad

Thin, portable tablet device seems to live up to rumors

Apple CEO Steve Jobs ended weeks of speculation Wednesday when he unveiled the Apple iPad, a long-expected wireless tablet computer, at a media event in San Francisco.

The thin, portable machine, priced at $499 to $829 and shipping in late March, looks like a cross between Apple's iPhone smartphone and iMac computers, with a user interface that draws on elements of both.

Jobs demonstrated using the device's 10-inch screen to browse websites and manage a calendar -- functions already available on an iPhone, but apparently eased by the iPad's larger screen. The iPad also runs apps developed for the iPhone, using a 1 GHz  custom chip designed in-house by Apple engineers.

It will be available in three models, with memory ranging from 16 GB to 64 GB. It's half an inch thick and weighs 1.5 pounds and has a battery that lasts 10 hours. 

But the device is missing one key feature, according to many online critics: a camera.

And Apple also drew brickbats for its choice of partner for the iPad: AT&T, the existing provider for iPhones, which has been widely criticized for the performance of Apple's devices on its network. AT&T will provide a $29.99 per month unlimited data plan for the iPad -- but it will only work for 3G-enabled models of the device, which costs $130 more than WiFi-only models. The device will also work with other providers who use the same GSM standard as AT&T, chiefly overseas.

The iPad's unveiling drew keen interest from the media world -- and not a few media celebrities, like Disney CEO Robert Iger and former Vice President Al Gore.

In warming up the crowd, Jobs declared Apple "the largest mobile devices company in the world," beating out Samsung and Nokia in revenues. He's taking some liberties in that number, including Apple's music players and laptops in the figure -- but it's classic Jobsian braggadocio.

In the runup to Jobs's appearance, Apple gave few details about the iPad. In its invitation to the launch event, held a couple of blocks away from the city's flagship Apple Store, Apple described the new gadget as "our latest creation."

That maddening vagueness, long a hallmark of Apple's product unveilings, didn't stop gadget bloggers from speculating endlessly. The rumors centered on a tablet device with a 10- or 11-inch screen, similar in form to an iPhone, but larger, and running the same apps as the iPhone -- rumors mostly confirmed in Jobs's official announcement.

Apple had reportedly talked to book and newspaper publishers about tablet-format versions of their products -- for which they're hoping they can charge consumers a premium, rather than offering them free or inexpensively over the Web as they do today.

New York Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz showed off an iPad-customized version of the company's online newspaper, a product similar to other electronic versions his company offers.

Five of the world's six largest book publishers had signed up to offer e-books for the iPad, Jobs announced. Books will display on the device with off-white pages and cost $14.99 or less.

Electronic Arts executive Travis Boatman also demonstrated game-playing on the iPad, which makes use of the device's touch-sensitive screen.

There have also been rumors that Apple might offer some kind of TV subscription package -- a claim seemingly bolstered by Iger's presence. Jobs is the largest individual shareholder in Disney and serves on the company's board, and the companies have collaborated closely on online video products like distributing Disney moves in the iTunes store.

For more coverage, see Qik video updates from NBC Bay Area's Scott Budman and others at the event.

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