Apple Inc's maestro Steve Jobs took the stage to unveil the iPad 2 on Wednesday, drawing a standing ovation with his surprise return to the spotlight after a brief medical absence.

The familiar sight of the Silicon Valley legend in a black turtleneck and jeans cheered fans and investors who had fretted about the health of the charismatic company co-founder. Shares of Apple, which had been flat, climbed as much as 1.4 percent after he strode onstage.

In the run-up to the event, there had been almost as much speculation about whether Jobs would appear as there was about the device itself. Jobs, who has been treated for a rare form of cancer, had been on indefinite medical leave for an undisclosed condition.

Didn't want to miss today, the industry icon told a packed auditorium in San Francisco, holding forth with his characteristic flair and energy.

Jobs' return to the spotlight comes at a critical moment. Apple is launching the next generation of its ground-breaking tablet computer just as its main adversaries are releasing their first such devices.

The iPad 2 is thinner than the iPhone 4, twice as fast as the last tablet, camera-equipped, and goes on sale this month in a surprisingly fast roll-out that highlights the fierce competition in the tablet market.

Apple sold nearly 15 million iPads in nine months of 2010, two or three times as many as analysts had predicted. The company is expected to sell 30 million or more this year, which would generate close to $20 billion in sales.

That is despite a growing cast of competitors like Motorola Mobility, Research in Motion and Hewlett-Packard Co.


Tim Cook, who has run Apple in Jobs' absence, was present but took a backseat to his chief, who said rivals were just flummoxed by the iPad.

Shares of Cupertino, California-based Apple rose 0.8 percent to $352.07 on Nasdaq at mid-afternoon.

It's pretty positive. It's definitely a sign that he's in good enough health, said Vijay Rakesh at Sterne Agee.

Tablets are seen as a must-have device for consumers and many businesses over the next few years. Analysts expect the market to surge to more than 50 million units this year, and 200 million units by 2015.

As in the smartphone market, Apple's chief rival is expected to be Google Inc's Android platform, which is free to license and is being used on a number of tablets.

The iPad, along with the iPhone, is expected to fuel Apple's growth over the next several years. The two product lines already make up more than half the company's revenue.

The iPad, which Apple has priced aggressively low versus the competition, has pinched the company's margins, a problem Apple seems happy to live with if the tablet can deliver such startling growth. (Writing by Edwin Chan; Editing by Richard Chang)