Tablet an alternative to smartphones and laptops

Apple finally unveiled the tech biz’s worst-kept secret Wednesday and introduced its long-rumored tablet computer, the iPad.

Looking thin but energetic, Steve Jobs demonstrated the new iPad to a packed house at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Jobs said the iPad is half an inch thick and weighs just 1 1/2 pounds.

Describing it as “thinner and lighter than any netbook,” Jobs said it has 9.7″ IPS display for “a greater angle of view.”

Jobs and fellow presenter Scott Forrestal stressed the iPad’s simplicity, repeating, “It all just works.”

With a touchscreen interface, the iPad resembles a large iPhone and can run iPhone apps unmodified, even at the larger device’s full-screen size.

An updated iPhone software development kit is already available, allowing developers to create iPad apps immediately. Forrestal predicted “a new gold rush” of iPad apps.

Contrary to expectations, Apple is positioning the iPad as a device for creating content as well as consuming it. Apple’s Phil Schiller showed off redesigned versions of the iWorks productivity suite designed for the iPad, priced at just $9.99 each.

The presentation also touted the iPad as a gaming device, an area where historically Apple has been weak.

One new feature for the iPad is iBooks and the associated iBooks Store. Similar to iTunes’ retailing of music and video, the iBooks store will offer electronic versions of popular books as well as textbooks for purchase. An iBook keeps the look of a print page but gives users the option to change fonts.

Jobs also announced a breakthrough in pricing for wireless access. All iPads have WiFi, but some have 3G cellular. AT&T will provide data plans of up to 250 MB/month for $14.99 or an unlimited plan for $29.99 per month.

The plans can be activated directly from the iPad, are prepaid and have no contract. By comparison, cellular broadband cards typically cost $60 per month.

The device is also far cheaper than some analysts expected, with prices starting at $499.

There will be six models: 16 GB, 32 GB and 64 GB, with each available with and without 3G. The most expensive model is $829.

WiFi models will ship in 60 days; 3G models in 90 days.

Jobs also unveled accessories, including a keyboard dock for typing.

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