The unveiling of Apple Inc.'s iPad renews a classic gadget debate: Do consumers want purpose-built devices that do one thing and one thing well, or all-in-one wonders that try to accomplish many different tasks?
Amazon.com Inc. proved that there is a market for a single-purpose digital-books reader with its Kindle, which features a black and white E Ink Corp. screen that's supposed to be easy on the eyes and battery—but doesn't do much more than show words on a page. After less than three years on the market, Amazon says the Kindle has become the most-popular item the giant online store sells.
Yet with new tablet devices that promise to be the digital equivalent of Swiss army knives, Apple and other electronics companies are arguing that the Kindle's days are numbered.
This year "is going to be the beginning of the tablet revolution," said video-chip maker Nvidia Corp.'s Chief Executive Jen-Hsun Huang at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month.
Even before the iPad was unveiled Wednesday, Hewlett-Packard Co. had showed off a slate computer designed to display printed content and video. Lenovo Group Ltd. in June will begin selling a $999 hybrid device called the IdeaPad U1 that splits into two pieces. Separated, it's a color touchscreen tablet that's good for reading and browsing the Web, and snapped together it becomes a full-power laptop with keyboard. Virginia startup EnTourage Systems Inc. is selling what it calls a "dualbook," a fold-up device with a color touchscreen on one side for Web browsing and a black-and-white screen on the other that's optimized for long-form reading.
Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs on Wednesday drove home the all-in-one idea that with the iPad. He said the device, which starts at $499, lets consumers email photos, watch video, listen to music, play games in addition to reading e-books. The iPad is "so much more intimate than a laptop and so much more capable than a smart phone," he said.
How successful this new generation of multi-purpose tablets will be depends on having the right content for a 10-inch screen, said Taiwanese computer company Micro-Star International Co., which launched a Windows-based tablet device several years ago. "It has to fit into the user's daily life," said Jason Lee, director of component marketing at Micro-Star.
Micro-Star's tablet and others like it haven't sold well in the past. Still, analysts say Apple's iPod is entering a more promising market where more consumers are getting used to the idea that all of their electronics devices must be Internet-connected. Today, people use their computers not only as a work or study tool but as entertainment devices to read news, socialize with friends, or watch video.
Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos declined to comment on the iPad. But in past interviews, he has vociferously defended the need for a device that's really good just for reading.
"The best analogy I can give is cameras," Mr. Bezos said at the launch of the second-generation Kindle. "I love having a camera on my cellphone, but I also have a compact camera and I have a SLR camera. If photography is important enough to you, you want a device that is perfect for that. Reading is important enough that it deserves a dedicated device."
Despite Mr. Bezos's stance, there are signs that even Amazon is hedging its bets on convergence. In the last year, the Seattle company has developed software that allows Kindle books to be read on devices such as the iPhone, iPad and PCs. Last week, Amazon disclosed it would inviting software developers to create programs that would allow the Kindle to run "active content," akin to the apps used on smart phones and tablets.
"Kindle is capable of offering readers a broad range of content that goes beyond what the book is today," Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman said at the company's announcement.
Some analysts, including Gartner Inc.'s Alan Weiner, suspect Amazon could still yet come out with its own multi-media tablet device.
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