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Goldstuck on Gadgets

Take two tablets …

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This year, 2011, is the great and glorious Year of the Tablet. So they say. But then why does it make ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK think of 1953?

There will be many big stories in hi-tech in 2011, but none as big, as important or as ground-shifting as the arrival of the Tablet as the new format of choice for the computer.

Now I invite you to cross out that sentence with a big black marker pen and scrawl ‚Sez Who?‚ above this article. That’s because the tablet will also prove to be one of the most unrealistically hyped buzzwords of 2011.

The excitement is understandable: at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, every major computer manufacturer in the world had a variation of the tablet concept on offer. But there was a serious fault line in this new landscape.

And no, the fault was not Apple Inc, or even the fact that it maintained its tradition of ignoring CES.

Apple had ignited the tablet explosion in April 2010 when it launched the iPad and sold 3.2-million units in three months. Rivals frothed and steamed, claiming they were about to launch their alternatives.

As a result, the entire industry had its eyes on Las Vegas last week, anticipating the glorious dawn of the Year of the Tablet. And indeed, close to a hundred new tablet devices were announced. But where the iPad had arrived on the market with a fully-fledged operating system designed specifically for the device, most of these newcomers came with Microsoft Windows 7 or Google’s Android 2.2, designed for cellphones. That’s like launching 21st century 3D TV with a rerun of the 1950s 3D classic, It Came From Outer Space(see the hilarious 1953 trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErFsW4-FDWw).

The only good news in that movie was that the aliens still lag behind us in mobile technology. But we’re not out of danger. Most of the tablets at CES were not even ready to ship into retail outlets. The new rendition of Android, version 3.0, known as Honeycomb and intended for tablets, was unveiled at CES, and there inlay the real flaw: Only one true tablet was launched, almost retail-ready, with Honeycomb: the Motorola Xoom. And it came not from the leading computer manufacturers like HP, Acer, Dell, or Lenovo, but from a mobile technologies and networking company.

A dysfunctional company for the past few years, Motorola had fallen from being the world’s second largest cellphone manufacturer to number six. In a bid to revive its fortunes, it started 2011 with the relaunch of its cellphone division as an independent business called Motorola Mobility. The new entity started life at a furious pace, in particular by stealing the show at CES with the Xoom.

That a struggling cellphone company should be the first to challenge the Apple iPad head-on speaks volumes about the readiness of the rest of the industry to compete. Maybe they’re all still preparing for Las Vegas in 2012, but if they don’t quickly invent time-travel, they may just arrive there to find the alien shave caught up, moved on, and left behind a burnt-out desert of lost opportunity.

· Arthur Goldstuck is managing director of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget. This column also appears in print every Saturday in the Weekend Citizen. You can follow Arthur on Twitter on @art2gee

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