Tabletpalooza: Winners, Losers, and Also-Rans

If I had to pick a theme for this year's Consumer Electronics Show, it would be tablets. Tabletpalooza, you might say. Or perhaps the Tabletpocalypse. Competitors far and wide used CES to take on the iPad.

None of them looked so formidable as to portend the death of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) tablet, but there were plenty of interesting entries. Here's a look at the winners, the losers, and the also-rans.

The winners
Virtually every tablet I saw at the conference was based on the Android operating system, which makes Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Tabletpalooza's runaway winner. Most of the tablet makers are working with the Big G's robot, and for good reason.

Google's "Honeycomb" version of Android looked like a genuine iOS alternative in demonstrations. Control buttons moved with the screen so that they always appeared at the bottom. Tabbed browsing replicated the PC experience. And GTalk video chat looked simpler to use than Apple's FaceTime.

Several tablet makers are likely to adopt Honeycomb, but Motorola Mobility's (NYSE: MMI  ) XOOM starred in Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg's keynote talk at the conference. Expect Moto to grab an early lead in Honeycomb sales, with top-notch offerings from Acer, Asus, Samsung, and Toshiba capturing much of the rest.

The losers
Significantly, Google chose to demonstrate Honeycomb on a 10-inch device roughly the same size as today's iPad. The implication? Say goodbye to 7-inch tablets.

Most consumers I spoke with won't mind seeing the 7-inch tab go. These detractors say the screen is too small to do meaningful work or watch video. Proponents I spoke with countered that the 7-inch is sized for portability. I'm not buying it; I think Apple had it right when it made the initial iPad a 10-inch device.

Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) either disagrees, or is simply behind. The PlayBook tablet it showed at the conference has roughly the same horsepower as alternatives -- a dual-core processor based on ARM Holdings' popular mobile architecture -- yet needs an accompanying BlackBerry to connect to 3G networks. Whoops.

The PlayBook's connectivity limits squelch some otherwise interesting OS features, such as live toggling between open applications. But without built-in 3G, the device is too reminiscent of Palm's ill-fated Foleo smartphone companion.

The also-rans
Surprisingly, the most interesting tablet I saw at the conference is one I consider to be an also-ran. Only the foot-weary would find it, seeing as it was hidden in a far corner of an upper hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, in the booth for Warren Buffett's favorite Chinese stock: BYD.

Mostly known for its car-manufacturing prowess, BYD was at the conference showing smart home technology. But then there was this 10-inch tablet with a Windows 7 installation:

Booth personnel called the largely inoperable device a reference design. They said BYD was showing off its ability to manufacture a large-scale Windows tab in hopes that a global PC maker such as Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) might notice. (Fools can hope, I suppose.)

Across the hall from BYD was another three-letter Asian manufacturer, NEC. Long known as a Windows licensee, this Japanese electronics supplier showed off several new Android gadgets, including a dual-screen tablet that ran a lightweight version of the 2.1 version of Google's OS.

By the numbers, NEC's tablet was the largest I saw: 14 inches spread over two screens that open like a book. Built-in 3G and Bluetooth service increase the desirability of the device, but the custom implementation of Android was reminiscent of Hewlett-Packard's (NYSE: HPQ  ) poorly positioned eStation 7-inch tablet. There's also no killer app for a dual-screen tablet -- or at least, no killer app that I saw.

Verdict: The iPad 'killer' is a myth
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the conference offered homage to the iPad and Apple's efforts to resuscitate the tablet from history's dustbin. But imitators are just that: copycats, and no better than the original.

It's going to be this way for a while. Initial reports say iPad 2 will be out in April. Judging by what I saw at the Consumer Electronics Show, that version could be ready for 4G LTE networks. Verizon has already lit up its 4G network, and AT&T is racing to begin its LTE roll-out by mid-year. There's already competition; Motorola's XOOM should also be 4G-ready in the second quarter. Either way, it's a good bet Apple will make sure its next tablet is as slick as its last.

iPad killer? There's no such thing, Fool. Instead, we'll see a feature-for-feature fight between all of the majors that's bound to last years. The so-called Tabletpalooza was only the beginning.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. What do you think of the tablet wars? Which stocks would you bet on? Use the comments box below to let us know what you think.

More Foolishness from CES:

What will be the big trends of the next five years? We asked our top equity analysts that question and they came back with five stocks we've put real money behind. We profile all five picks in a new special report. Get instant access by clicking here -- it's free.

Interested in more info on the stocks mentioned in this story? Add Apple, Google, Motorola Mobility, Research In Motion, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, or AT&T to your watchlist.

Google is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. BYD and Google are Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Rule Breakers stock-picking team. Tim had stock and options positions in Apple and a stock position in Google at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google and of Apple, in which it has also written puts. The Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. Its disclosure policy wonders if -palooza is to events what -gate is to scandals.


Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (1)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2011, at 7:54 PM, jayofCda wrote:

    I think it is the most ridiculous comment to say the Playbook is a failure because you have to tether it...The most popular iPad is the non 3G version so what is wrong with RIM hitting this market first? - the market of people who don't want to pay for another data plan and who use it to surf over Wi-fi at home or at coffee shops and probably use web email (hotmail, gmail, yahoo)? Somehow Apple is a genius company for offering a non 3G version while other companies are fools for doing so?

    Tethering is just an added option which will help sell into the corporate market as well....

    If anything is going to cause the Playbook to fail, it will be the fact that there may be a perceived lack of 3rd party apps or that there are no set sales channels for this product (Would carriers sell it to existing BB clients to try to increase 3G data usage? Would traditional retailers sell it?)

    The tethering feature will be a good decision....

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2011, at 8:09 PM, dundundundun wrote:

    "no ipad killer"

    its funny, cause every single tablet there (with few exceptions) is an ipad killer. maybe not a ipad2 killer, but as far as i knew, there is no ipad2.

    so, ipad killers? yes.

    if you want to say they arent as good as a product that you have imagines specs for (ipad 2), you would be correct.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2011, at 8:35 PM, iamtellingu wrote:

    @ dundundundun: "every single tablet there is an iPad killer" Kill what? The all mighty app store? LOL Only in your dream....

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2011, at 9:12 PM, TeddyKlugs wrote:

    Hey, dundun,

    News flash: none of the tabs at the CES are out yet! How can they kill anything if you can't buy one? If / when they come out - a year after the first iPad - they will be competing with the iPad 2 which is due soon enough . . . This will be exciting to watch.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2011, at 9:18 PM, TMFMileHigh wrote:

    @jayofCda,

    >>The most popular iPad is the non 3G version so what is wrong with RIM hitting this market first?

    Answer: because 3G and soon 4G access is standard on competitive offerings.

    When Apple first offered the iPad, there was no 3G alternative. RIM is entering the market with a tab that's already a year behind in a key technical area.

    FWIW and Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehighfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2011, at 9:28 PM, TMFMileHigh wrote:

    @dundundundun,

    >>its funny, cause every single tablet there (with few exceptions) is an ipad killer.

    How do you figure? Details please.

    Thanks and Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehighfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2011, at 9:34 PM, dundundundun wrote:

    take RIMs playbook for instance.

    cameras, flash, processor much better/faster than ipad's, lighter (yes smaller may be worse), and the multitasking that everyone has seen in videos. but also, 3G without having to pay for an extra plan (bummer people would have to take there cell phones around with them).

    honestly, this is not the case, but if the ipad was to stay the same, and the playbook came out to compete against, which would you rather have.

    and yes, @iamtellingu, the apple app store is great, and large, fully loaded with every bejewled and argy birds app you can think of.. if thats what youre looking for.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2011, at 9:49 AM, etgh wrote:

    "Tim had stock and options positions in Apple and a stock position in Google at the time of publication".

    ...need we say anymore about unbiased journalism ?

    It looks to me that RIM will be delivering a winner, at least from a product perspective. Unfortunately every negative rumor and even out-right lies are believed instantly and published by short-sellers like this one.

    RIM has thought this device through very carefully and they are clearly providing a product for their current business users to service this market first. Next, will be the stand-alone versions and different sized screens. All to offer a better value proposition to current and future users.This is clearly a very complex well researched plan and not just an iPay "me-too" ! Like the rest of RIM's product line, it is not designed to compete with Apple. Apple sells (for the 100th time !) entertainment devices, not business tools.

    You see, the CEO's of this company actually completed their degrees, unlike some others I might mention......

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2011, at 11:48 AM, TMFMileHigh wrote:

    @etgh,

    >>"Tim had stock and options positions in Apple and a stock position in Google at the time of publication" ... need we say anymore about unbiased journalism ?

    You wouldn't need to if this were The Wall Street Journal instead of The Motley Fool. Here, we practice analysis as investors writing for investors.

    >>It looks to me that RIM will be delivering a winner, at least from a product perspective. Unfortunately every negative rumor and even out-right lies are believed instantly and published by short-sellers like this one.

    You're welcome to your opinion but not to libel. All of my positions are disclosed here, and not one of them is short:

    http://my.fool.com/profile/TMFMileHigh/info.aspx

    Of course you know this since the link is in the disclosure line, but it bears repeating.

    >> Like the rest of RIM's product line, it is not designed to compete with Apple. Apple sells (for the 100th time !) entertainment devices, not business tools.

    It would be convenient if this were true. It isn't:

    http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9182498/iPad_lures_bu...

    Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehighfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2011, at 8:56 PM, DorisNBoris wrote:

    "because 3G and soon 4G access is standard on competitive offerings."

    Funny you claim that 3G and 4G are the standard.

    Don't a majority of the people using tablets have to be using that version to be called a "STANDARD"?

    Ultimately, tablets with data plans may cannibalize smartphone sales and apparently they are already cannibalizing laptop sales, but that 4G standard you are talking about is a 1-2 years down the road, not now.

    Most of the population in North America is still converting to smartphones from regular cell phones! And only a small portion of the world will have data plans for both a phone and a tablet....

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2011, at 4:55 PM, SleepyKat5 wrote:

    Wondering if you guys got to see AsusTek at CES. They were off the beaten path, in the Venetian. Some pretty good tablets there. My fav was the Transformer.

    An iPad killer will not be purely HW. It will be a combination of HW and (more importantly) an Apps channel. In my view the most likely combination to compete head to head with iPad would be a very well designed tablet, combined with Android & a solid apps store. This app store may be difficult to create for a myriad of differing tablets.

    I guess we will see when Honeycomb is released.

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