CES's Preemptive iSlate Competitors

apple tablet

The Consumer Electronics Show doesn't really kick off until tomorrow, but already there's a host of new stuff out. Today there's a mystifyingly wonderful crop of new gear that seems to be preemptive competition for Apple's iSlate.

Rumor: Microsoft's Courier Slate Due For Keynote Reveal

When Gizmodo got hold of what seemed to be internal promotional and research material relating to Microsoft's own slate PC efforts, the tech world took notice. Because the Courier device seemed pretty un-Microsoft, with an intuitive and imaginative UI and some high-technology built right in. There were rumors of a 2010 launch...but in all honesty the device seemed years away.

courier

Until last night. According to sources who've spoken to The New York Times, Steve Ballmer may be about to reveal the Courier officially in his CES keynote due tonight in Las Vegas. The paper is insistent about it, but also is careful to note the risks: Whatever iteration of the device is revealed (as clever as the leaked stuff or not) it had "better be good" else MS runs the risk of losing the slate PC battle before it really begins. It has to genuinely out-Apple Apple.

One last detail the Times has revealed is that the machine will not be made by MS itself, but by HP as a partner--HP's apparently had as much of a hand in the design as MS. And this curiously precise fact has also got us thinking: Is MS playing the same gentle leak/PR control via the times that Apple seems to be doing through The Wall Street Journal?

Amazon Takes the DX Global

kindleThough Amazon is blowing its own trumpet rather loudly about the success of the Kindle e-reader range, and the product has apparently sold in reasonable numbers, no one's absolutely convinced by the strength of Kindle's market dominance since Amazon refuses to deal in hard numbers. And the different Kindles definitely suffer from one poor PR issue: They're pretty expensive for a single-use device. They were also U.S. only for a long time, which really limited the potential global impact--something Amazon tried to fix with the Global edition of the Kindle 2. Even if it was very badly fudged (I mean, come on Amazon: Ship non-U.S. power bricks with the things!)

And the Kindle's future is seriously overshadowed by the upcoming flood of slate PCs, despite its superior text-capable e-ink screen, since these devices will do all the multimedia and Web-surfing things the Kindle simply cannot.

So Amazon took a small step today to try to snatch just a bit more market share before the Kindles are consigned to the gadget history file: It released the Global DX edition, with globally-capable wireless tech (via deals with international cell phone networks) for $490. It's an anticipated move, but it's also a desperate one: The device is still lumped with a U.S.-only power brick, for example, and its high price is setting the 9.7-inch screen gizmo in direct competition with the 7- to 10-inch tablet/slates we're all expecting.

Lenovo's Weird Hybrid Tablet Prototype

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The folks at Engadget got their hands on Lenovo's Ideapad U1 Hybrid, which will be doing the rounds at CES, and professed themselves quite impressed--though they had misgivings about the devices poor screen performance.

And if you look at it, the whole concept is actually odd: It's a reworking of the Skylight smartbook Lenovo revealed yesterday, with a removable top half that's actually a slate computer with an 11.6-inch screen. And that seems novel--a clever way of overcoming the issues that some users might have with an on-screen touch-sensitive keyboard. But though the machine runs Windows 7 when docked, the slate part runs Lenovo's Skylight OS. Which essentially means that as soon as you separate the two machines (no matter how slickly and quickly the device handles the OS changeover) you're limited to the capabilities that Skylight can offer, which will be a bugger if you're remote from the keypad and suddenly need to edit a Word document.

So it's a clever halfway house between netbook and slate PC, but I seriously doubt a device like this would last long in a marketplace that might be peopled with highly capable slate-only offerings from Apple and MS (particularly if these devices support Bluetooth keyboard connections.)

HP's Touch Netbook

hp netbookThis last device isn't directly an iSlate competitor, as it's a netbook with enhanced touchscreen powers. It's almost a halfway house between the common netbook and Lenovo's own half-and-half prototype in fact, and it's not even the first to do so--it's just HP's first one. But the HP Mini 5102 will no doubt appeal to some users who seek a cheap touchscreen pseudo-tablet PC like experience at lower prices, and it'll distinguish the HP from the hoard of other normal netbooks.

And it's one more thing: You could see HP's technological leaps with the Touch Netbook as confirmation that they've built the tech for Microsoft's rumored Courier. Which in turn adds a degree of plausibility to that device.

But all of these machines really do have just one--still fictional--competitor: Apple's iSlate, or iGuide, or whatever the Apple Tablet ends up being called. We'll just have to wait about a fortnight to see how well these erstwhile competitors will actually fare.

To learn more follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. 

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