China’s infatuation with Apple’s iPad is making villains of some rather unlikely characters. The tablet computer was released in China in September, but local supply has been insufficient to meet demand, thus sustaining a thriving grey market of goods smuggled in from Hong Kong. Last month, 14 housewives were detained at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border for carrying 88 iPads between them (as well as 340 mobile phones) reports the Wall Street Journal. Customs officials are now charging a tax on all iPads brought into China, even if they are only for personal use.
Apple’s competitors want to muscle in on the frenzy. A range of technology companies used the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to suggest that there is more to tablet computing than the iPad. One device attracting plenty of attention was the LePad (naming creativity runs wild, again) produced by China’s personal computing giant Lenovo.
And in terms of external design too, the LePad could also be mistaken for an iPad: its 10.1 inch screen is only slightly larger than the Apple version, which has a 9.7 inch screen. Like its intended rival, the LePad sports just a single button.
But differences become more apparent once the device is switched on. The Lenovo tablet runs Android, the mobile operating system developed by Google, and already a popular platform for smartphones. But the LePad’s key draw is an ability to merge with other devices. Not only does it function as a standalone tablet, it can also be docked into the monitor section of a laptop chassis to become a complete notebook computer running Windows 7.
This may appeal to consumers who are undecided between a tablet or a notebook. But those who want laptop specifications will have to pay laptop prices: the LePad will be sold on its own for around $500 when it is released in China this quarter, while the tablet with the docking station, known as the IdeaPad U1 Hybrid, will cost $1,300.
Initial reports on the LePad are favourable. Doug Aamoth, on TIME magazine’s technology site, Techland, thinks it “a very interesting product”. He adds: “It’s still a little expensive and clunky overall, but the idea represents a good first step in what we may expect to see from more and more manufacturers in the future.”
Tablets are a key part of Lenovo’s long-term plan to reach convergence across multiple products, allowing the smooth transfer of information between devices such as personal computers, televisions and cameras.
“The game is not the next 12 months,” Rory Read, president and chief operating officer at Lenovo, told PCWorld. “People are all over the tablet and the next device. The game is the next three to five years and that integration across devices.”
As well as working towards convergence, Lenovo is looking to diversify outside of its core business of PCs and laptops. In 2009, Lenovo bought back a mobile phone business that it had sold off and subsequently released the LePhone at last year’s CES. Although the LePhone is only available in China, it is already the third most popular premium-priced phone on the market, Read told Reuters.
One hurdle for Lenovo is that use of the iPad is currently one of the most popular forms of conspicuous consumption. In big cities like Shanghai, it is not uncommon to see trendy types preening themselves like peacocks with a little highly-public iPad use. And while Apple enjoys the first-mover advantage in this space, most of the world’s largest technology firms – Samsung, Microsoft and Research in Motion included – are also making aggressive moves. Lenovo has the advantage of an expansive distribution network in China but it will have to work hard in what looks set to become a crowded market.
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