Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the wraps off the company's much-anticipated touch screen tablet computer today in San Francisco. Dubbed the iPad, the computer looks and works very much like a larger version of the iPhone, Apple's touch-screen smartphone, which has sold more than 42 million units worldwide since its introduction in 2007. Perhaps the biggest surprise about the new device, which will become available in the United States in March, is its price, which starts at $499. This puts the iPad into competition with lightweight and low-cost "netbook" computers that generally ship with the Windows operating system but usually lack a touch screen and include low-cost and relatively slow processors. Jobs took a shot at the current crop of netbooks, saying "Netbooks aren't better at anything. They're just cheap laptops."

iTunes, iTunes LP Format
Like the iPhone, the iPad will boast an integrated link to the iTunes Music Store, and the process of buying and playing music has not changed, although the larger screen, which measures 9.7 inches diagonally, could increase the popularity of the iTunes LP format. Introduced last year, iTunes LP downloads can contain rich album art and other information, such as videos and lyrics, and generally sell for a few dollars more than an album's worth of audio-only files-for instance, Jay-Z's "The Blueprint 3" cost $16.99 in the iTunes LP format versus $10.99 as a collection of audio files.

Streaming Audio? Online Locker?
Other rumored changes to Apple's music strategy did not materialize at today's demonstration. For example, some onlookers suggested that Apple might begin to sell streaming audio files through iTunes, or allow users to store them in an online "music locker" based on technology gained in Apple's Dec. 2009 acquisition of Lala. Instead, the experience of buying and playing music on the iPad will be almost identical to the iPhone experience.

Apps
While the music experience remains largely unchanged, Jobs and other executives demonstrated several applications that will be unique to the iPad. Most notably, an e-book reader will provide an experience similar to Amazon's Kindle device, and will include a built-in link to a new iBookstore, which will sell electronic books (pricing was not announced at the event). Apple will also sell a version of its iWork productivity suite, including a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation-creation application, that are designed specifically for the iPad's touchscreen interface. Those applications will be available in the App Store for $9.99. The iPad will also support the more than 140,000 applications that have already been created for the iPhone, and users will not need to purchase them again to use the applications on the new device.

Pricing, AT&T
The iPad's price will range from $499 for a version with 16GB of flash-based storage and Wi-Fi connectivity (similar to the iPod Touch) to $829 for a version with 64GB and the ability to use wireless 3G networks. The surprisingly low price of the device itself was complemented by the low-priced data plan, which will be provided exclusively by AT&T in the United States--users will get 250MB of data per month at $14.99 and unlimited data for $29.99. This is in sharp contrast to data plans for wireless phones, which can cost $60 or more for unlimited usage. Although the audience seemed disappointed that Apple is sticking with AT&T, whose wireless data network has been plagued by slow performance in some cities, Jobs drew cheers for announcing that the plan would require no long-term data contract and that users would be allowed to cancel it at anytime.

More
- Apple iPad: What Does It Mean For The Music Biz? (Billboard.biz)
- iPad Reactions From Around The Web (Billboard.biz)
- UPDATE: It's the iPad! The Liveblog (Billboard.biz)

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