Apple CEO Cook Unveils Thinner iPad, New iMac

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) on Thursday unveiled a new, thinner iPad as the company tries to reignite the tablet's growth.

Apple said pricing for the iPad Air 2 starts at $499 and at $399 for the iPad Mini 3. Orders for the new iPad begin Friday, and shipping starts next week.

At an event at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Apple also said its new mobile-payment service, Apple Pay, will roll out Monday and be supported by more than 500 banks.

In addition, Apple unveiled an iMac computer with higher-quality resolution. Pricing for that starts at $2,499, and shipping begins today.

Tablet computers are facing an existential question as technology evolves. Smartphones are growing bigger with larger screens and more powerful processors, increasingly capable of handling tasks once earmarked for tablets. Laptops are lighter and more portable, meeting some of the demand for a lightweight, mobile computing device.

Apple isn't alone in confronting a sluggish tablet market. Market researcher Gartner estimates that world-wide tablet unit shipments will grow 11% in 2014, a sharp deceleration from 55% unit growth in 2013. By comparison, Gartner says smartphone shipments will increase 35% this year.

The trends are visible in Apple's own product line, where the new iPhone 6 Plus comes with a 5.5-inch display, encroaching on the iPad Mini's 7.9-inch screen.

Apple said Thursday that the latest iPad, dubbed iPad Air 2, Is 18% thinner than iPad Air.

Apple defined the tablet computer market four years ago when it introduced the iPad, the last major new product released under then-CEO Steve Jobs. Initial sales were strong, but demand started to slow last year.

IPad revenue has fallen four of the last five quarters. Last year, Apple introduced the thinner iPad Air with a 9.7-inch screen and added a higher-resolution display to the smaller iPad Mini. Based on the leaked images, Apple appears to have added a Touch ID fingerprint reader to its two main iPads.

Part of the problem is that iPad owners aren't replacing tablets as often as they swap phones. According to Kantar Worldpanel Comtech data, nearly 50% of iPads in use are the original iPad and the iPad 2--which were introduced in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has largely brushed off concerns about iPad sales--noting that customers are very satisfied with the product and iPad owners use the device frequently to browse the Web and make e-commerce purchases.

Apple is preparing a larger 12.9-inch iPad with a high-resolution display, according to people familiar with the matter. Apple had planned to start production of the new iPad this year, but it has pushed back the timetable to give suppliers more time to meet massive demand for its new iPhones.

A bigger iPad is expected to be part of Apple's push to position its tablet computer as the main workplace computing device for a new generation of workers. In July, it struck a partnership with International Busniness Machines Corp. to develop mobile applications targeted at different industries. Under the partnership, IBM (NYSE:IBM) also plans to sell iPhones and iPads to its corporate clients.

Apple Pay, meanwhile, is aimed at helping shoppers ditch their wallet and make purchases with an iPhone. The system relies on a technology known as near-field communication, or NFC, that has had trouble winning acceptance from merchants.

Merchants must install a reader at their checkout line for so-called tap-and-go payments. NFC readers are being used by fewer than 10% of merchants, according to Gartner analyst Mark Hung.

Apple has said iPhone owners will be able to use Apple Pay at 220,000 U.S. locations, including McDonald's Corp. (NYSE:MCD), Bloomingdale's and Macy's (NYSE:M). By comparison, the Electronic Transactions Association said more than nine million U.S. merchants accept credit and debit cards.

Apple also showed off its new operating system for Macs, the OS X Yosemite, which will be available today for free, and the company said its new mobile operating system, iOS 8.1, will be available Monday.