Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs took the wraps off the highly anticipated “iPad” tablet and pitched it at a surprisingly low price, aiming to bridge the gap between smartphones and laptops.

Jobs, who returned to the helm last year after a liver transplant, took the stage at a packed theater yesterday and showed off a sleek, half-inch thick tablet computer with a 9.7-inch touchscreen.

The iPad can run movies, games and a gamut of applications. And taking on e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle, Apple announced a digital bookstore called iBooks that will let users buy from publishers including Pearson PLC’s Penguin, News Corp.’s HarperCollins, and Hachette Book Group.

 

“What once occupied half your living room can now be dropped in a bag,” said Outsell Inc. analyst Ned May. “It’s pulling together a variety of needs (in) a universal entertainment device.”

The iPad will sell from late March for as low as $499 for 16 gigabytes of storage. An extra $130 is needed to equip it with 3G wireless capability.

“Pricing is very aggressive, so it’s pretty positive from a mass adoption perspective. It was about $200 lower than what I was expecting,” said Brian Marshall, an analyst with Broadpoint Amtech.

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