Apple chief executive Steve Jobs unveiled a new touchscreen tablet computer on Wednesday dubbed the “iPad,” seeking to carve out a niche between the laptop and the smartphone.

“We want to kick off 2010 by introducing a truly magical and revolutionary product,” said Jobs, who underwent a liver transplant last year and was making just his second public appearance since September.

The long-awaited iPad has a 9.7-inch (24.6-centimeter) color screen and resembles an oversized iPod Touch or iPhone. It is 0.5 inches (1.3-cm) thick, weighs 1.5 pounds (0.7 kilograms) and comes with 16, 32, or 64 gigabytes of flash memory.

The price tag for the device, Apple’s first major product since the iPhone three years ago, came in less than expected by most technology analysts.

The cheapest iPad model, with 16G of memory, is 499 dollars while the most expensive — which includes 3G wireless connectivity and 64G of memory — costs 829 dollars.

Apple said it would start shipping the iPad, which has a virtual keyboard but can also be hooked up to an external keyboard, within 60 days, making them available worldwide in late March.

The 3G version will reach the market in late April.

Dressed in his trademark blue jeans, black turtleneck and sneakers, Jobs appeared on stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater to unveil a product that had been the subject of months of speculation and rumor.

Walking around the stage or sitting on a couch, he showed off features of the iPad, which include browsing the Internet, doing email, working with spreadsheets, playing videogames, listening to music or watching video.

Jobs, who appeared thin but healthy, said Apple was launching an online “iBookstore” for the iPad and touted its abilities as an electronic reader of books, newspapers and magazines.

“You can have black-and-white, color, video in your books — whatever the author wants,” he said. “We think the iPad is going to make a terrific e-book reader, not just for popular books but for textbooks as well.

“Amazon has done a great job of pioneering this functionality with the Kindle,” Jobs said. “We are going to stand on their shoulders.”

“We’ve got five of the biggest publishers in the world supporting us and will open the floodgates for the rest of the publishers starting this afternoon,” he added.

Some technology analysts expect the iPad to pose a challenge to other e-readers while a number of publishers are counting on the device to sell digital versions of their publications.

The New York Times, Time magazine and National Geographic were among the partners whose content was displayed on the device on Wednesday.

Apple said that besides serving as an e-reader, the iPad runs most of the popular applications for the iPod and iPhone which are available through the Apple App Store.

Jobs said he expected the new iPad will successfully carve out a place between the laptop computer and the smartphone.

“Do we have what it takes to establish a third category of products in between a laptop and a smartphone?” he asked. “The bar is pretty high. We think we’ve done it.”

Jobs said the iPad is “so much more intimate than a laptop and so much more capable than a smartphone.”

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He said it has about 10 hours of battery life. “I can take a flight from San Francisco to Tokyo and watch video the whole way on one charge,” Jobs said.

“I think in general it was a hit,” said technology analyst Rob Enderle of Silicon Valley’s Enderle Group, expressing some doubt about the screen display and the inadequate wireless network of telecom carrier AT&T.

“I think this is disruptive for a lot of markets,” Enderle said, citing e-readers and videogames in particular.

“I have a hard time believing after seeing this that folks are going to want an e-reader that just does plain text and doesn’t do format or color,” he said.

“I think this could do some severe damage to the gaming market, especially hand-held gaming systems perhaps initially, but console gaming systems eventually,” he said.

“It takes the place of my iPod, it takes the place of a netbook I was thinking of buying, it takes the place of a hand-held gaming system,” he said.

Apple shares closed 0.94 percent higher at 207.88 dollars. — AFP