Microsoft to Reveal Tablet; Apple Speculation Now Shapes the Industry

According to the New York Times (s nyt), tonight at Microsoft (s msft) CEO Steve Ballmer’s CES keynote address, he will unveil an ambitious new tablet device that’s the result of a partnership between Microsoft and HP (s hp). Citing people familiar with Redmond’s plans, the NYT describes the tablet as a “novel take” on the format and says it will possibly be available mid-year. Right around when Apple’s (s aapl) iSlate is rumored to also be available.

It’s just the latest in a recent crop of PC tablet announcements, all seemingly stemming from the desire to beat Apple at a game no one is actually sure they’re even going to be playing yet. Apple’s influence and consumer cache is now so powerful that the competition doesn’t want to be stuck endlessly going after an iDevice-killer, and are instead trying to beat Cupertino out the gate.

Little is known about what exactly Microsoft will be unveiling today, but the information gathered by the New York Times suggests that it will be competing with the Amazon Kindle as well as with whatever Apple has in store:

My sources, however, say that Mr. Ballmer will show the as-yet-unnamed H.P. device, which will be touted as a multimedia whiz with e-reader and multi-touch functions.

That sounds pretty much in line with the rumors currently circulating about what Apple’s iSlate will also be packing. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Microsoft had been following the speculation and theorizing about what Apple’s new wonder device would eventually look like as closely as I had, and then had rushed a rough approximation of that same device into production to match or possibly beat Apple’s supposed timeline.

The key to whether Microsoft’s risky play pays off or not will depend on a few key factors. First is price point. The latest rumors put the Apple tablet somewhere around the $1,000 mark. The JooJoo, by contrast, is currently selling pre-orders for $499.00. I’d expect Microsoft’s offering to be closer to the JooJoo in pricing, but to offer a lot more in terms of functionality as well. In fact, even if this new slate device doesn’t threaten Apple’s plans, expect it to all but eliminate demand for the JooJoo.

Never before has a company had the kind of power that Apple now wields. Simply by planting a seed about a potential upcoming product development, they can change the direction of an entire industry. Imagine if the Mac maker was never even planning on creating a tablet to begin with, but just wanted to seem like it was to draw competitors into a a money and time-wasting vortex in a market that really has very little growth potential. Probably not the case here, but scary, nonetheless.