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Battle of the Vaporware Tablets

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Do you know what tablet computers and jetpacks have in common? It’s not a kerosene-burning jet engine strapped to your back, though Adobe Flash on a MacBook can feel like your pants are on fire. The shared problem is that the present reality of future technologies always seems to disappoint, often resulting in products never coming to market.

It’s called vaporware, and that would include the long-rumored Apple tablet. That tablet, like other Apple products that actually exist, has been getting all the attention as of late, and that’s a shame. There are a number of other existentially-challenged tablets not out there right now. Here are my top five, ranked by the likelihood they will remain in the ether for all time.

#5 CrunchPad/JooJoo

Michael Arrington’s CrunchPad was supposed to be “a dead simple tablet for $200,” but has ended up as a combo $500 webpad and Silicon Valley legal drama. Arrington’s partners, FusionGarage, dumped him and claimed ownership of the renamed JooJoo, which means “magical device” in “African.” Note to FusionGarage: “African” is not a language.

Overhyped by Popular Mechanics as one of the “most brilliant” products of 2009, there’s really nothing magical about JooJoo’s specs: 2.4 pounds, 12” display, 4GB SSD, Wi-Fi, camera, up to five hours of battery life. The OS runs a customized Ubuntu and WebKit browser. It’s the ‘browser as the OS’ concept, similar to what Google’s doing with Chromium/Chrome, but without the backing of a company worth $200 billion.

Despite perpetually shipping in “8 to 10 weeks” since early December, and the uncertainty of litigation, JooJoo probably will ship in early 2010. That earns it fifth place among vaporware tablets today.

#4 Freescale Smartbook

Nothing says vaporware like “reference design,” and that’s the Freescale Smartbook. The former Mac PowerPC fabricator showed off a tablet prototype—another vaporware synonym—at CES. Freescale claimed the tablet could be made for $200 and reach market by summer, easy to say when you’re not doing the making.

The Smartbook is built around a 7” display and weighs less than a pound. Internal specifications include a 1 GHz ARM CPU, 512MB RAM, 4 to 64GB storage, microSD slot, Wi-Fi, 3G modem option, and camera. All-day battery life is promised. There’s also an optional keyboard and docking station that when combined with the giant bezel makes the screen look minuscule. The operating system demonstrated at CES is custom Linux, but doesn’t appear much customized for touch.

Unlike the CrunchPad, the Smartbook probably won’t even make it to the perpetually shipping phase of the vaporware life cycle, but at least one has been built.

#3 OLPC XO-3

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization has provided the world’s poorest children more than a million computers and counting, and the XO-3 will never be one of them, but then it doesn’t have to. “We don’t necessarily need to build it,” OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte told Forbes. “We just need to threaten to build it.” With a design goal like that, how can you fail?

Hypothetically available in 2012 for $75, the XO-3 “will feature a new design using a single sheet of flexible plastic and will be unbreakable and without holes in it.” The page-sized display, 8.5 by 11 inches, will have “both reflective and LCD capabilities,” making it viewable in the sun and as an e-reader. Internally, the XO-3 supposedly will have an ARM CPU running at 8 GHz, though Negroponte admits that’s a “provocative” target. You think? People in the Star Trek reboot don’t have kit like this, so yeah, provocative works as well as vaporware.

#2 Microsoft Courier

In 2001, Bill Gates introduced the Tablet PC to the world, and nearly a decade later Steve Ballmer did it again, but not with this device. Instead, a wildly gesticulating Ballmer claimed the “Slate PC” moniker at CES, showing off a nameless, nothing-new tablet from HP that will be available sometime this year, not that anyone cared. People wanted Courier.

That’s the name of this device, as first reported by Gizmodo in September. The booklet—so much for Slate PC—has two 7” displays connected by a hinge, multi-touch and stylus input, camera on back, maybe inductive charging for power. The OS appears to be designed for the device, so it’s not a Windows 7 tablet, and there are plenty of applications designed for it, so it’s not Windows 7 tablet. No word on battery life, price, or availability, except that it’s supposed to be in the “late prototype” stage of development, which makes one wonder why Courier wasn’t at CES.

Just watching the concept video for Courier, how could one not declare Microsoft the winner in the Battle of the Vaporware Tablets? Because once again Apple has been there and done that.

#1 Apple Knowledge Navigator

Even twenty years later, the Apple Knowledge Navigator concept reigns supreme among vaporware tablets. Opening the booklet reveals a pair of magical panels that appear to merge into a single display, that display having speakers on the sides, web camera and data card slot on the top. Nice touch how it tilts upward for typing, but touch is almost an afterthought.

Most of the machine-human interaction is done via a bow-tie wearing “agent,” or AI, through voice. This is vaporware at its finest, not just a demo, but like living in alternate reality, just like Apple in the late ‘80s under John Sculley. We will see whether Apple under Steve Jobs, who killed Apple’s first tablet, the Newton, can do better. Don’t expect talking heads in mock-turtlenecks, but it would be unwise to bet against the real Apple tablet in 2010.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Is The Age of the Web Tablet Finally Upon Us?

11 Responses to “Battle of the Vaporware Tablets”

  1. Apple has “been there, done that” because they released a concept video of a tablet computer 20 years before Microsoft release a concept video. All the author is doing is comparing the Courier concept to the Knowledge Navigator concept.

    All of your other points about Microsoft commercializing the tablet PC are well taken.

    • In 2001, Bill Gates predicted that the Tablet PC would be the most popular platform in the US in five years. We all know how that turned out. Microsoft has won nothing because they have invested nothing. Now, at the 11th hour, we see Steve Ballmer rushing on to stage with something, anything, and declaring the name “Slate” taken. Too little, too late. The Apple tablet is coming. We’ll see whether it fails like the many iterations of the Tablet PC, but I wouldn’t bet against it, and apparently neither would Steve Ballmer and Microsoft.

  2. “Just watching the concept video for Courier, how could one not declare Microsoft the winner in the Battle of the Vaporware Tablets? Because once again Apple has been there and done that.”

    Been where? Done what?

    As I browse through the collecion of available Apple products, I don’t see a single mention of a tablet. Not one.

    Sure,the iPhone or iPod touch might be called a tablet like computer, except that it doesn’t do anything that a tablet is meant to. It’s a multi-touch phone and media player meant for the consumption of media.

    Tablet computers do more than allow you to pinch and zoom your photos. In fact, the courier mock ups are actually very good examples of what a tablet should look like. They let you enter things with a stylus. (Sorry, but the entire strength of a tablet is having something that looks like a pencil/pen. If I want to type, I’ll get a notebook. I hear that Apple makes a very nice light/think notebook at an outrageous price.) They allow me to draw and manipulate photos with real computer software like Photoshop or GIMP. (Finger painting isn’t the same.) They recognize handwriting and simplify the process of notetaking. (OneNote on a tablet PC is simply awesome and there is literally nothing like it in the Mac world.)

    So, how can you claim that Apple has revolutionized this space? There is no Apple tablet. Apple has made no announcement. There is even a serious dearth of shadowy photos. We don’t know anything about it, except for wild speculation. That might change in a week, after Apple finally announces something, but until then, you can’t claim that your vapourware is better than my vapourware.

    Up until Apple does make an announcement, Microsoft has won the tablet war. They are the only company that has ever shipped a tablet or tablet operating system (as unimpressive as the current offering might be). I would even say that Courier currently beats out the Apple tablet for likelihood. At least with the courier, there are leaked mockups and videos that probably came from Microsoft (or a design firm associated with Microsoft). With the Apple tablet, we got nothing. We don’t know what it does, we don’t know how big it will be. We know nothing about the software, or price, or applications.

    Apple’s tablet is a big black hole. How can you possibly claim that Apple has “been here, done that”?

  3. Leon Aves

    Try actually reading the definition you link to before using it. Vaporware is:

    “a product, usually software, that has been announced by a developer during or before its development”

    Not announced:

    Microsoft Courier
    Apple Tablet
    Apple Knowledge Navigator (Was always just a concept)

    At a stretch:

    XO-3 (Not in development, announced as “concept”, but admittedly with intent to build.)

    This leaves you with 2, one a prototype, which is not very well known, and one, fair enough is vaporware, but you’re basically moaning about one tablet here, the crunchpad. And you;re an apple blog. I don’t even…

    • Really? I’ve got “software or hardware that has been advertised but is not yet available to buy, either because it is only a concept or because it is still being written or designed.” And I think we can count concept videos and rampant rumors and leaks among “advertising”. Note the: “only a concept”.