By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, January 28, 2010; A01
SAN FRANCISCO -- For months, the same questions have been bouncing around the computing industry: What will the Apple tablet do? Will it redefine the laptop? Can it reinvent the publishing industry? Could it even -- gasp -- save print media?
On Wednesday morning, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs made his latest bid for gadget immortality. A crowd of journalists, analysts and invited guests packed an auditorium here to see the thin, bespectacled Apple co-founder unveil the iPad, an 8-by-10-inch, wireless-enabled slab of metal, plastic and glass.
The iPad, due to ship in late March, looks like either a big iPhone or a MacBook Air laptop that's been severed from its keyboard half. But it's aimed between those devices.
"Everybody uses a laptop and/or a smartphone," Jobs said as he started the 1 1/2 -hour presentation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. "The question has arisen lately: Is there room for a third category of device in the middle?"
That middle ground has been more of a burial ground for such past ventures as tablet PCs running Microsoft Windows software and "palmtop" computers with miniaturized keyboards. Cheap, lightweight netbooks have sold well but require compromises in capability and usability.
The iPad -- starting at $499, hundreds of dollars less than what analysts and other Apple observers had expected -- could fill that hole in the market if it lives up to an introductory pitch heavy on words such as "magical" and "revolutionary."
Part Web browser, part media player, part e-book reader, the iPad is only half an inch thick but, at a pound and a half, a little too hefty for walking-around use. A high-resolution, touch-sensitive color display fills its front and accepts text entry through a virtual keyboard. On the inside, it runs an upgraded version of the iPhone's software on a processor developed in-house by Apple instead of its usual supplier, Intel.
The iPad (some spectators raised an eyebrow or two at the way the name evoked feminine-hygiene products) will include Wi-Fi wireless networking. Some models, starting at $629 and due around the end of April, will also connect to 3G mobile broadband from AT&T -- which, in a departure from standard industry practice, will be sold on a no-contract basis at prices topping out at $29.99 a month for unlimited data usage.
Apple said the battery will power 10 hours of use, with standby time of a month.
The iPad runs almost all programs written for the iPhone, Jobs said -- though when enlarged to fill a prototype iPad's screen, those applications' text and images often looked blurry or fuzzy.
But Apple means for this device to be much more than an overinflated iPhone.
Its most fascinating aspect may be its electronic-book program, iBooks, that seems targeted squarely at Amazon and its Kindle e-book readers. "We're going to stand on their shoulders," Jobs predicted.
The iBooks store won't come near the inventory of Amazon's Kindle Store, but the iPad's screen offers a level of detail impossible on the e-ink screens of the Kindle, Barnes and Noble's Nook and other e-readers. A copy of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's "True Compass" opened on a prototype iPad looked strikingly like a paper edition, featuring black-and-white and color photos, finely drawn text and no wait to turn an onscreen page.
That same sharp, clear screen also opens possibilities for print-media publishers. The New York Times is working on an iPad program for subscribers and demonstrated an early version of this software during the keynote. The Washington Post is exploring that option, said Guy Vidra, Washington Post Media's head of business development and emerging platforms.
The iPad can also run games -- a few showed off onstage offered the kind of fast-paced graphics usually reserved for computers and consoles like Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 -- and productivity software, including a version of Apple's iWork suite of word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications.
Apple is counting on outside developers to join it in creating software for the iPad -- starting with the authors of the 140,000 or so programs available for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
Jobs noted how two earlier Apple offerings have, in effect, served as covert training programs for the iPad and its software: The iPhone has taught tens of millions of users how to use a multi-touch interface, while the iTunes Store has made those people comfortable with buying music, movies and software in an Apple-run market.
One Washington area developer has already started writing applications for Apple's new device.
"I think it's definitely going to kill the Kindle," said Barg Upender, founder and chief executive of Mobomo. But he did express a little disappointment that the iPad fell short of the most enthusiastic prophecies -- for example, control by voice commands. "It's a step in the right direction but not as revolutionary as we thought it would be," he said.
Two analysts expressed some doubt about how many iPhone users could be sold on adding an iPad to their gadget inventory.
"My take is that Apple reinvented the netbook," said NPD Group's Stephen Baker. "It's not a new category; it's a companion to other devices."
Roger Kay, principal analyst at research firm Endpoint Technologies Associates, credited Apple for a "pretty astounding" price. (Note, though, that a high-end iPad with 3G wireless and 64 gigabytes of memory will sell for $829, not much less than Apple's cheapest laptop.)
"The public reaction is still kind of uncertain," Kay added. "We're still scratching our heads."
The world has a way of upending the more fevered hopes of technological revolution. Consider how the last gadget to see this much anticipation, the Segway, fared after its launch: Contrary to the prediction of one enthusiast, cities have yet to be redesigned around those two-wheeled devices.
That Segway advocate? None other than Steve Jobs.
Staff writer Mike Musgrove in Washington contributed to this report.