The veil was finally lifted on one of the most hotly anticipated gadgets in technology history on Wednesday night as Apple’s Steve Jobs held aloft the iPad, a tablet-shaped computer which he hopes will win Apple domination of the ebook market.

Looking like an oversized iPhone, and sporting a 24.6cm colour screen — the same size as Amazon’s black-and-white Kindle e-reader — the iPad would “open the floodgates” for the sales of ebooks, said Jobs, Apple’s chief executive.

In front of an excited crowd, he showed off web surfing, email, games, presentation software and various other tricks. But it was clear ebooks are, at least initially, Apple’s highest priority for the touchscreen iPad, as Jobs unveiled a program called iBooks to let people “discover and purchase and download” e-books directly on to the device from iTunes.

The company has signed deals with five major publishers — HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hachette — to sell e-books on the iPad.

Reaction online was mixed, but the publishing industry — keen for a digital salvation in a form that does not obliterate its profits — was generally effusive, as were voices from the education sector.

If the iPad ousts the Kindle, currently dominant in ereading, it would mark the third business that Apple has set its sights on conquering. It first took on digital music with the iPod, and more recently has been overhauling larger incumbents such as Microsoft in the smartphone sector with its three-year-old iPhone.

Speaking at the launch in San Francisco, Jobs suggested it would be “far better” at tasks such as web browsing, email and reading ebooks than either smartphones or laptops, creating a “third segment” of computing between handheld phones and laptop computers. Success will rest on whether Apple can convince customers they need such a device — and a key factor could be price. The first versions, without mobile connectivity, will go on sale worldwide at the end of March, priced from $499 in the U.S. Versions with 3G will arrive at least month later.

The view from some industry analysts last night was that sales of iPad—like devices are poised to explode, after years when tablet computers have barely sold. “These ‘Goldilocks’ devices — not too big, not too small — are expected to have a break out year in 2010,” said Jim Sloane, lead technology partner at the consultancy Deloitte. “By offering a more appealing balance of form and function, net tablets will be purchased by tens of millions of people in the year ahead.” But they mark a move from active creation of content to passive consumption, noted Ian Fogg, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “With the iPad running an iPhone-style user interface, it’s optimised for media consumption rather than creation.” Jobs came on stage and praised Amazon’s Kindle, but in effect vowed to bury it. “Amazon’s done a great job of pioneering this [ebook] functionality with the Kindle, and we’re going to stand on their shoulders,” he said.

Apple is understood to be offering electronic content publishers a 70% share of any revenues from sales through iBook — and is allowing book publishers to set higher prices than Amazon has. That will be attractive to publishers worried that ebooks will undercut them.

Newspaper and magazine publishers will also be watching how well the iPad does.

Jobs warned Apple’s rivals: “Because we’ve already sold 75m iPhones and iPod Touches, we already have 75m people who know how to use an iPad.” The announcement crowns a decade in which Apple has remodelled the music, mobile phone and now — possibly — publishing industries. Earlier this week it recorded record quarterly revenues of $15.7bn, and profits of $3.4bn, a far cry from December 2000 when it warned investors it would make a loss of $250m on quarterly revenues of about $1bn.

The iPad is 0.5in thick, weighs 1.5lb (0.7kg) and can store 16 to 64 gigabytes of data. Apple claims that it is capable of 10 hours’ battery life, though real-world tests hardly ever confirm manufacturers’ claims.

The iPad project has been in the works at Apple for several years, but was repeatedly knocked back by Jobs. The latest tablet computer to hit the market, it still has some way to go before it convinces the public that it is worth buying. Previous tablets have proved merely niche devices — despite support from luminaries such as Bill Gates, who famously announced in 2001 that he believed they would be the most popular form of computer within five years.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010