New tablet devices emerge as Apple looms

Call it a "slate" or call it a "tablet," the technology world is suddenly awash with a novel category of mobile devices seeking to grab the spotlight from a hugely anticipated product launch by Apple later this month.

Hewlett-Packard Co, Microsoft Corp, Dell Inc, Motorola Inc and Lenovo Group Ltd are among a barrage of companies showing off thin, touchscreen, multimedia devices at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.



The sprawling show floor was flooded with prototype and concept devices in an array of sizes, as vendors test the waters of an as yet unproven market. These wireless gadgets can stream video, download music, surf the Web and play games, aiming to win over consumers by bridging the gap between smartphones and laptops.



They are jockeying for attention ahead of Apple's widely expected announcement of a 10- to 11-inch tablet computer in late January, which could redefine the category much as the iPhone did for phones.



But some analysts doubted if consumers would take to tablets or slates, which join a market crowded with netbooks, e-readers, smartphones and laptops of all configurations.



Gartner analyst Van Baker is skeptical of the category as a whole, saying he doesn't understand what functionality tablets offer that would compel consumers to shell out hundreds of dollars for them.



"Apple could pull it off," Baker said, however, noting that the iPhone, iPod and Macbook maker already charges premium prices for its products so it may be able to persuade consumers to buy a tablet priced in the $500 to $800 range.



Most of the tech vendors that showcased prototypes at CES were coy about pricing or potential launch dates. Apple itself has yet to publicly discuss any tablet.



But HP, the world's largest PC maker, did confirm on Thursday that it would roll out a slate computer this year that will have multitouch capability, runs Windows 7, and has WiFi and 3G wireless connections. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had demonstrated the device at a keynote speech on Wednesday.



"We've been looking at this space for quite some time," Phil McKinney, chief technology officer of HP's computer division, told Reuters. "The difference between a good idea and great idea is timing. We think 2010 is the right timing."



Citing one potential use of what he called a rich media device, McKinney said HP has been working with magazine and newspaper publishers in connection with the slate.



The distinction between a slate and tablet at this point seems semantic.



Motorola Co-CEO Sanjay Jha said the company was considering making a tablet. Another Motorola executive, Don Schoch, showed a prototype "media tablet" with a 7-inch screen running Google's Android operating system, a modem by Motorola and a chip from Nvidia Corp.



Schoch said the tablet could sell for around $300 (£187) and be ready commercially by the fourth quarter, but whether it actually comes to market would depend on factors including the successful deployment of an advanced mobile network by Verizon Wireless.



Dell said it could bring a 5-inch slate, which resembled a large smartphone, to market this year, and that it was studying a number of different screen sizes.



"There's going to be tablets of every form and kind coming," said Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of Nvidia, whose graphics chips are found in many multimedia gadgets.



Huang said a number of new devices based on Nvidia's Tegra chip are forthcoming and called 2010 the beginning of a "tablet revolution."



Thomas Weisel Partners analyst Doug Reid estimated the overall tablet hardware market in 2010 at $3.5 billion (£2.19 billion) to $5.3 billion (£3.3 billion), rising to $30 billion (£18 billion) by 2014, driven by Apple. But he said tablets could cannibalize sales of netbooks and laptops, estimating average tablet selling prices at $700 (£437).



"We view the re-invigoration of tablet product development now underway and related growth opportunity in 2010 as a near term positive for the PC industry," he wrote in a note issued on Thursday.



Tablets have been tried a number of times over the years by various companies, without much success.



For now, tablets appear to be distinct from electronic readers such as Amazon.com Inc's Kindle, which are best used for books and periodicals and have little multimedia functionality. E-readers are also growing in popularity, with a stack of new models hitting the CES show floor.



"The tablet phenomenon is an opportunity," said Robbie Bach, head of Microsoft's entertainment and devices unit.



"The truth is those (different types of screens) are all going to blend at one level. Over time, the distinction between screens from the user perspective, that's going to blur a little bit. The service delivery is going to be critical."

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