* Event scheduled for March 2
* Rivals set to challenge Apple’s tablet (Adds background, byline, recasts)
By Gabriel Madway
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Apple Inc (AAPL.O) is hosting a media event next week to show off the next-generation of the iPad, as it prepares to take on new rivals in the fast-growing tablet market.
Apple, which sent an invitation to reporters on Wednesday via email, will host the March 2 gathering at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, the same venue where Apple unveiled the original iPad in January 2010.
The characteristically succinct invitation featured an image of a calendar page with a giant “2” emblazoned in the center, peeled back just slightly to reveal the familiar form of an iPad. The invite teased, “Come see what 2011 will be the year of.”
Given the sheer crush of competing tablets coming on the market, Apple will face a bigger challenge to wow consumers with the new iPad, which is expected to go on sale in April.
The iPad has completely dominated the nascent tablet computer market, but literally dozens of new devices are set to launch this year, so Apple will have to prove it can stay one step ahead of its pursuers.
Apple sold nearly 15 million iPads last year, when it had the market largely to itself. Analysts expect the company to at least double that figure this year, as the overall market explodes to more than 50 million units.
Industry watchers expect Apple to show off a thinner, lighter and faster version of the 10-inch touchscreen tablet, and also add a front-facing camera to enable video chatting using the company’s FaceTime application.
There is also the question of who will lead the event, with Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs out on indefinite medical leave. As Apple’s master showman, Jobs typically presides over major product launches.
If not Jobs on stage, other potential emcees include Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook and marketing chief Phil Schiller.
With the original iPad priced starting at $499, investors will also be watching to see if Apple plans to creep farther down the price chain to broaden the iPad’s appeal.
Apple’s rivals has so far been unable to match the iPad on price. But Apple has pinched its own gross margins by pricing the tablet lower than its serious competitors. (Additional reporting by Edwin Chan; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Steve Orlofsky)