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Could this be the long-awaited iPad 2?

The long wait appears to be nearly over. Apple on Wednesday sent out emailed invitations to a March 2 San Francisco press event hinting at the debut of a new version of its hot-selling iPad tablet computer.

The cryptic invitations provided the date, time and location of the event and show an image of a March 2 calendar page peeling back to reveal a corner of an iPad. The message on the page reads “Come see what 2011 will be the year of.”

Technology analysts have taken to referring to 2011 as the “year of the tablet” with iPad dominating the category and competitors racing to market.

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs introduced the iPad at a press event in San Francisco in January of last year.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that Apple has started production of a thinner, more powerful version of its popular tablet computer.

The second-generation iPad is expected to have more memory and a front-facing camera for capabilities such as a FaceTime video-conferencing feature on Apple iPhone 4 smartphones.

Cupertino, California-based Apple said in its latest earnings release that it sold nearly 15 million iPads in the eight months after the tablet computers became available in the market in April of last year.

US telecom titan Verizon on Thursday will begin selling Motorola Mobility’s hotly awaited “Xoom” tablet computer at a price close to that of a top-of-the-line iPad.

Xoom will be the first tablet on the market powered by “Honeycomb” software crafted specifically for such devices by Internet powerhouse Google and has been heralded as a viable challenger for Apple’s market-ruling iPad.

Xoom will be sold for $800, but the price will be trimmed to $600 for those who opt for two-year service contracts with Verizon.

The six iPad models range in price from $500 to $830 with the three higher-priced models having 3G mobile telecom connection capabilities while the three less costly tablets only link to the Internet using Wi-Fi at hot spots.

With a 10.1-inch (25.6-centimeter) screen, the Xoom is about the same size as Apple’s iPad.

Xoom also features a front-facing 2-megapixel camera for video chats and a rear-facing 5-megapixel camera that captures video.

The Xoom tablet computer was crowned the best gadget at the giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last month.

“This is really the next generation of tablets,” Motorola Mobility device team head Alain Mutricy said as he held a Xoom in one hand at the awards ceremony.

“Our partnership with Google has been very intense and has enabled some great technology.” – AFP