Taiwan: Who needs Apple's iPad?

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Forget the Foxconn suicide scandal and technology worker rights. At this year's Computex trade show in Taipei, it was all about the hot-selling tablet from Apple.

From cheap Chinese knock-offs to more upscale versions boasting everything the iPad lacks, Apple's latest gadget loomed large.

Some have been slinging around phrases like "iPad killer" to describe new entrants. But most commentators are skeptical that any of them really have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the iPad, an astounding 2 million of which have already been sold since its launch in April, at a starting price of $499.

Still, some firms in Asia at least appear to be making a valiant effort. Here's a quick tour of the "me-too" iPads on display last week in Taipei.

Move over iPad, it's the eeePad

Perhaps the most promising iPad-inspired product is the eeePad, the not-so-subtly named tribute gadget from Taiwan tech powerhouse Asustek.

This Taiwan upstart shocked the tech world by pioneering the commercial netbook sector with its midget eeePC. Now it's trying to replicate that success with a tablet computer.

There's just one catch: it's not for sale yet anywhere.

Asustek hopes for a global launch in the first quarter of 2011, but says in the meantime it's working to develop content for the gadget, including a web-based multimedia content and applications platform, [email protected]. It's also partnering with Intel to use Intel's applications store.

Asus says it hopes to offer both content platforms with the eeePad, after a trial period offering Intel's apps store with its eeePC in the second half of this year. "It's a new device, so it will take time to see how the market evaluates it," said Asustek spokesperson Jessie Lee.

Asustek's products are always snazzily designed, and the eeePad prototype is no exception. The company plans to sell a 10" version priced around $449 and a pricier 12" version. Its major selling point is that it's got all the cool stuff the iPad lacks: a USB port, a webcam and support for Adobe's Flash player. It's also got a nifty keyboard dock.

The eeePad has more computing power than the iPad, says product manager Jason Wu, and battery life is estimated at six to 10 hours. "We think we can bring the full PC experience but with more fun and fashion," said Wu. "No one should sacrifice their computing experience to use a tablet."

Attack of the iPad clones

Over at Intel's booth, a full range of iPad clones was on display. There was the Amtec iTablet T10H, Gemsta's GIGA9, NFS's NPAD, Compal's NEZ00 and MSI's WindPad, to name just a few. The common denominator: all run on Intel's Atom processor.

"The market's there, so everyone's looking for a tablet solution," explained Intel product marketing manager Daniel Lee. "It's hard to tell what the retail prices will be but I think they will be competitive with Apple."

"This market is evolving, so everyone is working on a price point and on content," he added.

For its part, Intel is focusing on how to work with partners on reducing power consumption. "We have a lot of room to improve, and a lot of work to do in the next couple years," said Lee. "We'll spend a lot of resources and energy on this segment."

China's iPad

One company that's actually got a head start on Apple is Hanvon from China, where the iPad is not yet for sale.

Hanvon dominates China's e-reader business, owning some 95 percent of that market. Now it wants to dominate China's tablet market too. It introduced an iPad look-alike, the TouchPad, in late May, selling for 5,999 renminbi (about $875). It expects to sell more than 10,000 a month.

The 10.1" gadget runs on an Intel processor, using a Windows 7 operating system. It also runs Adobe's Flash and has a web cam.

It's not yet for sale in the U.S., where Hanvon is still looking for a distributor. But it went on sale in Australia at the end of May.

The company listed on Shenzhen's stock market in early March, and has since seen its stock price double, from 70 to 80 renminbi a share to about 159 renminbi now. Unfortunately, said Hanvon's TouchPad product manager Niu Lei with a rueful laugh, "Employees can't buy stock — we can only watch it."

Poor man's iPads

Perhaps the most intriguing iPad homage products were at the booth of Via Technologies, a company that makes systems-on-a-chip.

Those are being used in ultra-cheap iPad knock-offs produced by small Chinese companies, mostly in the go-go southern boomtown of Shenzhen. "They're not big players by any means," said Ben Hall, a senior marketing specialist at Via.

Such products are often called "shanzai," which translates literally as "mountain stronghold" and has in the last few years become the hot term here for cheap, no-brand or obscure-brand Chinese knock-offs of mobile phones, computers and other products. According to Taiwan's economics ministry, about 100 million of the 1.3 billion handsets shipped globally in 2009 were shanzai products.

"Shanzai had negative connotations two years ago, but now a lot of Chinese companies are embracing it," said Hall. "Rather than piracy and copying, it's become about fast-moving and innovation."

"One of the benefits of shanzai is you can move so quickly," he said. "These guys aren't scared to put out a product that's not 100 percent. They won't sit on a product and wait until it's perfect."

He showed off two such products priced between $100 and $150, Eken's MOO1, and G-Link's A8. Both use processors from ARM Holdings as part of a system-on-a-chip bundled by Via Technologies subsidiary Wondermedia. They run Google's Android operating system and sport 7" screens. "People prefer the size, you can put in your pocket, it's lighter and easier to hold in your hand," said Hall.

They're not available directly in the U.S. but can be purchased over websites like Merimobiles.com, said Hall.

With the dirt-cheap price does come some drawbacks, though. "They're not as responsive as an iPad. There's definitely a lag there," said Hall. Battery life is only three hours, versus the 10 claimed by Apple for its iPad.

Hall said he sees a range of tablet offerings on the horizon, with many of the copycats pricing their products to undercut the iPad. "Apple set the bar quite low at around $500, so they're coming in at $300 to $500, and then you're going to get shanzai guys coming in at $100 to $150," said Hall. "So I think there's going to be room for everyone to play."

One product not on display at Computex: China's most notorious iPad knock-off, the $150 "iPed," featured in this Japanese news clip: