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.
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.
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.
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.
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