Asia's iPad imitators hope to bite into Apple's lead with new tablets

When Apple announced the arrival of the iPad, it said it would create and define a brand-new sector in the market for computer devices, somewhere between the smartphone and the notebook laptop.

Two months and more than two million iPad sales later, a string of Asian manufacturers have shown they agree – by unveiling their own tablets that they hope will take a bite out of Apple's lead. More than a dozen new iPad-style gadgets have now entered the fray, and more are sure to follow.

At the Computex computer trade fair in Taipei this week, beautiful models posed with shiny black slabs of clever glass – most of which looked pretty much the same as Apple's iPad.

First out of the box was the catchily named ASUS Eee Pad 101TC. It's similar in size to the iPad, runs on Windows and will sell for $399 (Dh1,465) – around $100 less than the US price of a basic iPad. The MSI WindPad 100, which at $499 costs the same as the iPad, also runs on Windows and boasts a webcam – which is conspicuously absent in the first iPad models. LG's new UX10 device also has a webcam.

Many newcomers will also use Adobe's Flash video technology, another perceived flaw in the iPad. Apple refused to allow Flash on its new gadget.

Taiwan-based chipmaker VIA believes the way forward in the tablet market is to go smaller and cheaper.

Its VIA Slate prototype has a seven-inch screen, runs on an old version of Google's Android operating system and will retail for between $100 and $200. Several other tablet devices will also run on Android.

Right at the bottom of the market is the iPed – which seems to be a direct copy of the iPad, even down to the packaging. It is on sale only over the Taiwan Strait in China, selling in a Shenzhen computer mall for $105.

Nancy Liu of Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute said companies launching their tablets at Computex wanted to prove "they have the capability to catch the trend set by Apple. I don't think the followers are capable of dethroning Apple's leadership at least in the short term".

But it's not the gadget, it's what you can do with it that counts. And this is where Apple is also streets ahead of the pack. As Jenny Lai, a Taipei-based technology analyst for brokerage firm CLSA, said: content is king.

"Content remains a critical part of the success story for iPad," she said. "Currently, there are seven major app stores including new entrants Lenovo and Asustek. What's more important for Apple and existing vendors is building up a more user-friendly interface and more choices for online-store users," she said.

Apple has more than 100,000 downloadable applications compared to the 500 it offered for the iPhone when it first opened online less than two years ago. Google has more than 30,000 apps available for Android. Lenovo's application download store for Lephone and other products has around 250 applications.

Apple's new launch loses sheen

Apple's secrecy about product launches is legendary but when chief executive Steve Jobs takes the stage today the world may have already had a glimpse of what is expected to be the next iPhone.

Jobs is to be the keynote speaker at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco, an annual event during which the gadget maker reveals its latest must-have devices.

This year's conference, which has attracted more than 5,000 developers of programs for Macintosh computers, the iPhone, the iPod and the iPad, carries less mystery than years past due to an Apple software engineer's unfortunate evening in a California garden a little over two months ago.

The engineer, Robert 'Gray' Powell, lost a prototype of the next-generation iPhone while drinking at the Gourmet Haus Staudt near Apple headquarters and it ended up with a 21-year-old man who then sold it to technology blog Gizmodo.

According to Gizmodo, features of the new phone include a front-facing video camera for video conferencing and a better regular camera with a larger lens.

It reportedly has a flat back instead of curved back, is thinner than the previous model, the iPhone 3GS, and has a battery that is 16-per cent larger.

Gartner analyst Van Baker said Gizmodo's revelations about the next iPhone had taken some of the shine off the event.

"I think the biggest challenge Apple's going to face is coming up with enough exciting news to have this truly get the market's attention," Baker said.

I think there'll be some additional reveals on OS 4.0 (the latest iPhone operating system)," he said.

"We might see a new iPod Touch," the Gartner analyst said. "Beyond that, I'm not sure because the iPad's new and the MacBook line – both the MacBook and the MacBook Pro – just had a significant refresh.


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