And The Winner Is … iPad (With A Bombshell Base Price Of $499)

To hear Steve Jobs tell it, Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) created the laptop and the smartphone. Is there room for a third category? Jobs says there is if it’s better at tasks than the laptop or the smartphone. “Some people have thought that’s a netbook. The problem is notebooks aren’t better than anything … they’re just cheaper.” So how will Apple fill the gap? With the iPad, just unveiled by Jobs in San Francisco, where our Tricia Duryee is reporting live.

Meanwhile, I’m hopping from feed to feed as Jobs demonstrates from a couch. (His tech people are having a better day than Steve Balmer’s at CES. Chalk up about another win for Mac guy.) The form factor — as many expected looks like an overgrown iPhone. It has a built-in iTunes store, multi-touch, auto-directional viewing in portrait or landscape, interacts with nearby PCs and smartphones. But what about content beyond your own music collection, photos and iTune downloads? He shows YouTube, now available in HD as well, snippets from Modern Family, Star Trek, and Up. As for practical apps, sorry, Bing, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Streetview gets the shout out as Jobs shows how to find a sushi bar from the iPad. Tons of details below.

Specs: .5 inch thin; 1.5 lbs; 9.7 inch IPS display; 1GHz Apple A4 chip; 16GB – 64GB flash memory; 802.11n WiFi; Bluetooth 2.1; 10-hour battery. Jobs: “It screams.”

The App Store: And now for the real heart of the iPad — third-party apps: all iPhone apps should work out of the box and can be used either pixel-for-pixel or enlarged by going to double pixel. ESPN’s just launched SnowCross is the demo app for graphic-intense apps. EA showed off a striking touch-enabled Need for Speed Shift. As had been floated, the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) — demoed by Martin Nisenholtz (Arthur Sulzberger’s in Davos) — has folded in embedded video. The highly popular MLB At Bat upsizes its live video, looks like it adds in-game chat. The SDK for iPad apps comes out today.

And now for the e-reader, Jobs is showing off the new iBook app next to an Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) Kindle and an iBookstore that looks like book shelves and operates like buying from iTunes. (Slide show with images from gdgt) It’s scheduled to open this afternoon. Now Jobs is showing off the Ted Kennedy memoirs that the publisher deliberately kept off Kindle; price: $14.99. Publishers on board include Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette and Harper Collins.

Pricing and shipping: Still with AT&T (NYSE: T) for 3G: Data plans: $14.99 for 250 megs a month, unlimited for $29.99. Free AT&T wifi. No contract. WiFi only models ship in 60 days; 3G models in 90. The price: a bombshell rate of $499 for the base model with WiFi and 16GB; $599 for 32GB, $699 for 64 GB. Add $130 for 3G and the most expensive model is $829. Of course, that doesn’t include what it will cost to accessorize, say adding a case or the handy-dandy wireless keyboard dock. More to come.