Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Apple Tablet Device Competetors line up

The planned tablet from Notion Ink, due to be unveiled at CES

As the world awaits Apple's touchscreen tablet, upstart Notion Ink is one of many competitors moving to top the smartphone maker at this week's CES

For a device that has yet to be introduced, the tablet expected from Apple this year is whipping up a lot of buzz in the blogosphere. A tiny Indian startup called Notion Ink hopes to steal at least part of Apple's thunder by unveiling its own tablet weeks before its bigger rival.

Notion Ink will introduce its device at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Boasting a 10.1-inch touchscreen, Notion Ink's tablet is larger than a mobile phone but smaller than a traditional laptop. It's designed for people who want easy access to the Web, online videos, and a wide range of other applications without having to boot up a bigger, more powerful computer. Notion Ink CEO Rohan Shravan says he plans to show off the first prototype of the device in early January, partly to entice consumers who might otherwise hold out for Apple's long-awaited device. "We are pushing to launch before Apple," Shrivan says.

A host of other hardware and software makers with the same strategy in mind are expected to showcase their own tablet computers at CES, which gets under way on Jan. 7. Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo, and Asus may be close to unveiling their own tablet computers. Several could use the CES stage to try to steal the spotlight from Apple.

Analysts say tablets will become a big business this year. Spurred on by the explosive use of mobile content, the ubiquity of wireless networks, and the increasing affordability of touchscreens and powerful chips, device makers hope to tap demand for larger handheld computers that can outperform mobile phones. By the end of 2010, tablets could make up a $3.5 billion market, says John Jacobs, director of notebook market research for Austin-based DisplaySearch. "We're talking about a brand-new market," he says.

Tablet-pioneer Microsoft 's Courier?

Apple alone expects to ship 10 million tablet devices in its first year of release, former Google China president Kai Fu Lee wrote in his blog on Dec. 31, citing a person with knowledge of the project. Notion Ink expects to produce 1.5 million units of its tablet device for the U.S. market in its first year.

Microsoft may have the most to gain from a big splash at CES. The company's attempt to bring a stylus-operated mobile computer to market in the early part of the last decade, the Tablet PC, floundered, in part because of a lack of applications available for the device. "Microsoft launched the original tablet class years ago," says Rob Enderle, president of the Enderle Group. "It would be embarrassing if Apple stole it."

The Microsoft Courier, a dual-screen tablet computer that first appeared last year in promotional videos leaked to the press, could make its big debut at CES. Chief executive Steve Ballmer plans to demonstrate the Windows 7 operating system on new devices, according to a person familiar with the matter. With all eyes on Las Vegas, what better way to give the Courier a boost? A Microsoft spokesman declines to discuss plans for the Courier or any new hardware devices the company might unveil at the show.

Whether they tout wares at CES, or wait until after Apple shows its hand, tablet challengers face an uphill climb against Apple, which has piqued public interest in tablets without even making an official announcement,. "Apple is going to set the bar whenever it does enter the market," says Roger Kay, founder of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

PC makers, including Dell, are prepping their own tablet-like devices. The Round Rock (Tex.)-based company may announce a mobile machine with a 5-inch screen that runs Google's Android operating system, analysts say. The handheld might make an appearance at CES, according to a December report from gadget blog Pocket-lint. "[Dell is] going to be motivated to show something at CES that says, 'We're here to play'," Enderle says. "A tablet could do that." Dell spokesman Andrew Bowins would not comment on the possibility of a forthcoming tablet device, but says the company will "continue to look at current technologies and all form factors to bring the best mobile experiences to consumers."

Coming: a Lenovo-Qualcomm "smartbook"

Asian players may be both closer to producing touchscreen tablets and better prepared to unveil wares at the show. Asus, the Taiwanese company that pioneered the in-between category of netbooks in recent years, is working on a device it calls the Eee Pad—a 4-inch-to-7-inch "panel" that will be powered by an Nvidia chip, according to the blog DigiTimes. A representative from Asus did not return requests for comment. Mike Rayfield, who heads Nvidia's mobile business, would not discuss the prospect of an Asus tablet but added that "2010 will be the year of the tablet revolution. At CES, we'll see tablets providing consumers the truly portable, high resolution, no-compromise Internet experience they've been waiting for."

Meanwhile, Chinese PC maker Lenovo has said it is partnering with mobile chipmaker Qualcomm to introduce a "smartbook"—a miniature laptop that connects to the Internet.

Other PC makers may take a wait-and-see approach to tablets. Hewlett-Packard, which has made a line of keyboard-attached tablet PCs since 2002, doesn't appear to be in a rush to conquer mobile devices. "We've seen the emergence of form factors filling in the gap between smartphones and notebooks," says Phil McKinney, vice-president and chief technology officer of Hewlett-Packard's personal systems group. "Many have tried to take traditional devices and either expand or shrink them into this space, with little luck," he says, pointing to smaller versions of netbooks that have failed to catch on with consumers. HP declined to comment on its plans for CES.

In the long run, it may prove prudent to wait until Apple releases its tablet, says analyst Kay. "It's a little bit dicey to get out there in front of Apple," he says. Mobile phones introduced just before the launch of the iPhone in summer 2007 were considered by many to be instantly outdated. Tablet makers may wish to avoid the same fate.

Notion Ink CEO Shravan isn't fazed by the prospect of an Apple tablet. Notion Ink has landed promising partnerships with the makers of the Android operating system, Qualcomm, and Pixel Qui, which makes touchscreens that use natural light to prolong a tablet screen's battery power. He admits his device looks a lot like the one Apple is expected to unveil, but believes he has the Cupertino company beat in one important area: price. "When you buy an Apple product, you pay a big premium on it because the Apple name is there," Shravan says.

Still, it may take a lot more than a lower price to distinguish a tablet that's intended to go head-to-head against one from Apple.

Copyrighted, Business Week. All rights reserved.

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