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IC firms wait to ride Apple tablet wave

Posted: 12 Jan 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Apple tablet? netbook? processor? mobile computer?

Apple Inc. hasn't even released its tablet media device yet, and already the electronics industry is scrambling to ride the product's coattails.

Rumors are rampant that Apple will soon launch a mobile tablet computer, with many saying it will happen later this month. Meanwhile, much of the buzz out of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is about devices that adopt the tablet form factor.

Apple has been typically mum about the anticipated product. As a result, industry speculation about its size and functionality varies widely. But Apple being Apple, many believe the product could potentially define or reshape an entire product category, similar to both the iPod and iPhone.

IC vendorsincluding Freescale Semiconductor Inc., Nvidia Corp. and Qualcomm Inc.have spent much of this week touting chips and product concepts that seem designed to ride the wave of consumer enthusiasm likely to be generated by the Apple tablet media pad/e-book/netbook, which, in the Apple way, will probably be available immediately after it is announced.

In an interview late last year, Glen Burchers, director of global consumer marketing at Freescale, described a trend toward the tablet form factor in the smartbook category and speculated about what Apple's rumored product might do to the market.

"They [Apple] are clearly the market-maker of the world in this category," Burchers said. "They'll come out with an awesome product at most likely an expensive price." Burchers predicted that other companies like Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc. and Lenovo Group Ltd would then come up with products that were "almost as awesome" but cost half of what the Apple product does. Freescale earlier this week unveiled a reference design for a tablet-style smartbook, a category of products defined by Freescale and others as fitting between a smart phone and a netbook. The Freescale design uses an i.MX515 processor with an ARM A8 core, features a 7-inch touchscreen, is capable of running Android or Linux operating systems and is expected to sell for about $200, according to Freescale. The company expects end products based on the design to be released by retailers by the summer.

Tablet bandwagon
Other semiconductor vendors also joined the tablet party. Nvidia the next generation of its Tegra family of processors, touted as a low-power device designed specifically for the high-resolution needs to tablets. Tegra 2 supports streaming 1080p video and Adobe Flash Player 10.1 acceleration with an immersive 3D user interface and days of battery life, according to Nvidia. Tegra processors have found traction in the netbook space, notching more than 50 design wins, according to Doug Freedman, an analyst at Broadpoint AmTech.

In his keynote address at CES, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off an unnamed HP tablet PC that according to one report, uses a Snapdragon processor from Qualcomm. Separately, Qualcomm announced it was working with HP to design an Android-based smartbook, though a demo of the device shown by HP utilized a clam-shell form factor.

"Without question, 2010 is going to be year of the tablet," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., in a statement issued by Nvidia.

In the interview last year, Freescale's Burchers said that while the first generations of so-called smartbooks utilized a clam-shell form factor, he expected many of the products that hit stores in 2010 would "morph into tablets." The tablet form factor with a touch screen is seen as desirable, appealing to younger users, because it encourages mobile use, Burchers said. Also, he added, research indicates that, when using a clam-shell computer, most users automatically expect the operating system to be Microsoft Windows, which most smartbooks and netbooks don't use. With the tablet form factor, the expectation is removed, Burchers said.

"I'm very anxious to see what the users will tell us when these products come out," Burchers said.

The term smartbook arrived in the electronics vernacular last June at Computex in Taipei, when Qualcomm and Freescale used it to describe a class of portable products that are larger than smart phones but smaller than netbooks.

Some fear that the use of the smartbook term and several othersincluding netbook, e-books, mini-notebooks, mobile Internet devicesto describe products that have similar functionality will create confusion in the minds of consumers. The water may be further muddied by the emergence of such devices in a tablet form factor.

- Dylan McGrath
EE Times

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