SAN JOSE, Calif.
While Apple has grabbed the headlines for its multimedia tablet, expected to be unveiled today, other companies are scrambling to catch what they hope will be the next consumer-tech wave — thin devices designed for everything from watching videos to playing games to reading newspapers.
Tablet computers have been around for about two decades, though they have never caught on with mainstream consumers. Research firm IDC estimates U.S. sales of tablet computers last year were a mere $950 million, mostly from devices sold to specific industries, such as delivery companies like UPS and FedEx.
But a new generation of consumer tablets with better screens and improved operating systems could succeed where past tablets have failed, experts say. Hopes are especially strong for Apple's long-anticipated device, despite a price reported to be in the $1,000 range.
"So far, it has been a very dormant market," said IDC analyst David Daoud. "They have been good pieces of engineering, but there hasn't been any applications created to make them compelling. There has been no champion. The question is, can Apple be that missing champion? The answer is probably yes."
Unlike laptops and netbooks, next-generation tablets have virtual keyboards, like Apple's enormously popular iPhone. They will have Web-browsing capabilities and serve as sophisticated platforms for all forms of media content. They also will enable publishers to seamlessly embed video presentations in text.
Earlier this month, PC heavyweights Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Lenovo unveiled demos of new tablets that will be rolled out later this year. HP said its multimedia device has video-playing and e-reading capabilities. Dell introduced a tablet with a 5-inch display that it says is a companion to a PC. Lenovo showed off a hybrid laptop that has both a physical keyboard and a multitouch screen.
Innovative Converged Devices, or ICD, and Archos have created tablets that run on Google's Android mobile operating system. Fusion Garage is using Linux software for its JooJoo tablet, which allows for Internet access over WiFi for checking e-mail, viewing movies, reading electronic books and placing video calls.
Phil Greenhalgh, ICD's London-based chief operating officer, does not see the devices as substitutes for laptops for tasks such as writing. But he thinks they will be embraced by consumers used to getting content any time, anywhere through smart phones but who would prefer a larger screen.
"People's expectations are going up and up and up," Greenhalgh said.
Wide adoption of tablets among mainstream consumers will depend on easily accessible applications and content — something Apple has a track record of providing through its online iTunes store, said Mike Stinson, vice president of marketing at Motion Computing.
"They have already built relationships with content providers and carriers," he added. "They are far ahead of the game."
Still, even Apple will have to make a strong pitch to convince consumers that they need another expensive device in their lives.
"They jury is still out on this particular category," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. "We have already had two turns at this — in the early '90s and in the early 2000s — and they didn't catch on. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe it will take Apple to kick-start it. But at this stage, history is not on its side."