Steve Jobs shows off the Apple iPad 2, a lighter, thinner and faster version… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)
Reporting from San Francisco — Apple Inc. Chief Executive Steve Jobs is on medical leave, but that didn't stop him from making a surprise public appearance to unveil the iPad 2, an upgraded tablet computer that could help the company fend off a slew of rivals in the burgeoning market.
"We've been working on this product for a while and I just didn't want to miss the day," Jobs said shortly after receiving a standing ovation Wednesday. Jobs, who took the highly publicized leave in mid-January, has battled pancreatic cancer. He received a liver transplant in 2009.
After his appearance, Apple shares rose 2% in midday trading, before leveling off later.
With a softer voice than in previous years and looking just as gaunt as he has for some time, Jobs took the stage in his trademark black turtleneck to show off the new iPad, a thinner, lighter and faster improvement on the original. The new version includes built-in cameras and comes in both black and white.
Famous for his snappy presentations and ability to wow consumers with surprising new technology, Jobs may have intended his appearance to give the product a special aura, said James Post, professor of management and a corporate governance expert at Boston University.
"He's still playing a role: It's the symbolic endorsement," Post said. "Investors and potential customers benefit from that because they know the iPad 2 has his blessing."
But Jobs' public emergence could cut both ways, given the Apple co-founder's fame and the broad interest in the state of his health.
"His appearance takes the story away from the product," Post said. "It's exactly the wrong thing in terms of introducing something new."
Apple is credited with pioneering the tablet-computer market, having launched the iPad last year. The company has sold more than 15 million units, and analysts expect the iPad to account for more than 80% of tablet sales this year, even with as many as 100 tablets hitting the markets from various manufacturers, large and small.
Motorola Inc. just released its Xoom tablet to positive reviews, and Hewlett-Packard Co., HTC Corp. and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd. are expected to release models soon. Analysts have said that Apple has stayed ahead of its competitors on price — while the Xoom costs $799, Apple's comparable iPad costs $729. Samsung's Galaxy Tab, a significantly smaller device, has dropped below $300 with a two-year contract.
The iPad 2 will go on sale March 11 at the same prices as its predecessor, starting at $499 for the entry-level device with Wi-Fi only and going up to $829 for the version with a 3G cellular connection. Consumers can get the cellular iPad 2 from both AT&T and Verizon without signing a long-term contract, though the monthly data fee can be $35 or more.
Apple highlighted the new iPad's lighter weight — 1.3 pounds compared with the 1.5-pound original — as well as the addition of front- and back-facing video cameras that allow users to conduct video chats. The device has a newer computer processor that will make it run faster and allow for smoother performance of video-intensive applications like games and movies, Apple said.
Jobs spent considerable time showing off a new case for the iPad. Apple said the case for the original device was too bulky and interfered with its performance. The newer case, which Apple calls a "smart cover," magnetically attaches to the front of the iPad to create a kind of screen protector and automatically puts the machine into sleep mode when it is attached.
Though none of the new features were particularly surprising, analysts believed the incremental enhancements would allow Apple to keep its place at the top of the tablet market.
"I think they're focused on having a more intimate product," said Sarah Rotman-Epps, a technology analyst at Forrester Research. "It's hard to differentiate one device from another — there are so many of them. And Apple's approach in this post-PC world is to say, 'Hey, we're going to make a device that you kind of want to cuddle with."
That fits with how people are using their tablets, she added: Forrester found that people are most often on their tablets in the living room and the bedroom.
Times staff writer Tiffany Hsu contributed to this report.