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SAN FRANCISCO, March 2 (Reuters) – A thin but energetic
Steve Jobs made a surprise return to the spotlight on Wednesday,
taking the stage to unveil Apple Inc’s new iPad and
drawing a standing ovation.

The Silicon Valley legend has been out on medical leave
since late January and his reappearance, in trademark turtleneck
and jeans, bolstered Apple shares and reassured investors and
fans worried about his health.

Defying speculation in some tabloid reports that he was
seriously ailing, Jobs took swipes at rivals and mocked
competing tablet computers. Striding back and forth across the
stage at the Yerba Buena Center, Jobs spoke passionately about
the iPad 2’s features as No. 2 and heir apparent Tim Cook looked

The $499 device is thinner than the iPhone 4, twice as fast
as the last tablet, camera-equipped, and ships March 11 in the
United States and March 25 in 26 more countries. The
surprisingly fast roll-out highlights the fierce competition in
the tablet market.

"We’ve been working on this product for a while and I just
didn’t want to miss today," Jobs told a packed auditorium in San
Francisco with his characteristic flair and energy.

A relaxed-looking Jobs lingered near the theater stage for
more than 20 minutes after the show wrapped up, chatting amiably
with acquaintances and Apple employees.

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 pancreatic
cancer, remains on medical leave for an undisclosed condition.
An Apple spokesman referred questions about his medical leave
back to Jobs’ statement in January that he planned to remain
involved in major strategic decisions for the company.

His appearance on Wednesday 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.

"Steve Jobs is the most important asset for Apple without a
doubt and that’s why investors are so curious about whether he
will remain and continue to have an impact," said Robert Lutts,
chief investment officer at Cabot Money Management.

"The stock went up after his appearance but not as much as
it normally would if Apple had a fully healthy CEO."