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Why the Jury's Still Out on the Apple iPad

Does Apple’s tablet computer, the newly announced iPad, live up to the hype? There’s no doubt Apple fans will flock to the device, with its svelte build and 9.7-inch color screen. But Steve Jobs’ confirmation of the long-rumored device was more striking for what wasn’t announced than what was.

The iPad is designed to access the same applications available for iPods and the iPhone on Apple’s popular App Store. There’s even software that will automatically re-size existing applications for better viewing on the larger screen.

But even Jobs, during his presentation in San Francisco, wondered aloud whether Apple has what it takes to establish a third category of products between smartphones and laptops. He says yes, but it’s not that clear.

One reason is because there was no immediate word on any of the rumored subscription content deals with Hollywood and other content providers that might make the iPad a must-have gadget that moves beyond niche markets such as education, health and graphics arts.

Much has been made about Apple’s attempts to revive the markets for various forms of media, but little was said at the Apple event to clarify just how the iPad will do that.

Jobs’ announcement of Apple’s foray into the electronic book market also left questions about the price of the books and whether consumers will be able to seamlessly sync them among Apple devices.

The challenge for Apple is whether it can convince the millions of consumers who already own an iPhone or iPod Touch, or are content with their notebook computers, that it’s worth shelling out at least $499—the base price for six model categories — for a larger touch-screen machine. The iPad offers 10 hours of battery life even when playing video, which should help. And the touch display helps distinguish the iPad from Apple’s MacBook notebook computer lineup as well as Windows-based notebooks and netbooks.

Apple did strike what should be a consumer-pleasing deal with its wireless carrier partner AT&T to offer two data plans, one for $14.99, the other for $29.99 unlimited monthly data. Combined with built-in Wi-Fi and free access to AT&T’s national Wi-Fi hotspot network, the plans could make the iPad an all-around mobile device.

As expected, Apple announced it had struck deals with five of the major book publishers to create its own store for downloading books in electronic form. But many rival makers of mobile devices, including Amazon’s Kindle family and Sony’s Reader ebooks, include mobile broadband connections in the purchase price.

Early adopters enamored with all things Apple will flock to the iPad. But until Apple gets developers to create more iPad-specific applications that showcase the hardware, it may face the same mainstream consumer apathy that has plagued other tablet-specific devices created over the past decade by its rivals.

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