Steve Jobs delivers the iPad

After all the frenzy and the hype, Apple’s mythical tablet computer is finally here. But will customers buy the thing?

And the heavens opened and Steve Jobs spaketh, “Here is your iPad.”

After months of intense anticipation and wild rumour mongering by Apple enthusiasts, the company’s CEO finally unveiled its latest offering today to the assembled masses in San Francisco—a tablet device that aims to meld the mobility of a smartphone with the functionality of a laptop. As Jobs said, it’s “way better than a laptop, way better than a phone.”

But now that we know what it is, can it live up to the hype?

When something generates this much attention—by one estimate, more than 25,000 online articles have been written about the Apple tablet since the start of this month—you have to expect someone to be disappointed. So it was today. Outside the Yerba Buena Center, where today’s event was held, dozens of people were huddled around smartphones reading live updates from inside. Their instant reactions hinted at what could be in store for the iPad. “This thing is an iTurd,” one onlooker sniffed. Shortly after, a disillusioned writer for the popular Silicon Alley Insider website posted a story calling the iPad “a big yawn.”

But such responses are by far the minority. Already, the Apple Store in downtown San Francisco has had to turn away buyers eager for an iPad of their own. The earliest any model will be available is March. Even then, that version will only be able to access the Internet via a wi-fi wireless signal. In the U.S., a version capable of connecting to 3G mobile networks will be ready 30 days after that. Jobs said deals with international phone carriers should be in place by June.

It’s not hard to see why people are excited. As expected, the device is slim, just a half-inch thick and weighing 1.5 pounds, with a multi-touch screen that at 9.7 inches is roughly three times as large as Apple’s wildly popular iPhone. In fact, it looks like a giant iPhone. As Jobs held it up, it had the effect of making him look child-sized. All models of iPad are wi-fi enabled and come with Bluetooth connectivity, speakers and, of all things, a compass. (No camera though. Apple has to save something for the next generation iPad.)

Users of the device will be able to surf the web, watch movies, check e-mail, buy songs through the built-in iTunes music store, and select from the tens of thousands of apps independent developers have already created for the iPhone. At the same time Apple has introduced iBooks, an online bookstore that has already signed up five big publishers, including Penguin and HarperCollins. The New York Times was also on hand to show off its iPad app. Expect many more publishers to follow suit as the newspaper and book industries pray the iPad will finally offer them a way to make money off their online content.

The iPad’s ultimate success will depend a lot on whether people are willing to pay the prices Apple is asking. Leading up to the announcement many assumed the company would price the device at around US$1,000. Instead, the base model, with 16-gigabytes of memory, will sell for US$499, or about $530 at today’s exchange rate, and up to US$699 ($743) for the 64GB model. (To get a version that can access 3G mobile networks in the U.S. will cost you another US$130.)

In the U.S. Apple has negotiated two pricing packages for 3G service with AT&T, with unlimited data downloading available for US$29 a month. The chances of Canadians seeing such a generous and inexpensive data plan are next to none, so you can expect something of a backlash here when Apple eventually does announce a plan with a Canadian carrier.

Whatever happens, Jobs must be satisfied with the way the big unveil went. Apple has spent roughly a decade toiling away on this project in various forms. His refusal to even acknowledge its existence only made us want to know about it even more. Now that the advanced marketing campaign is over, it’s time to see whether the hype will pay off.