Tablets for the taking at CES

Could tablets and e-readers be the next big thing?

A lot of the buzz at the Consumer Electronics Show this year was about a product that has yet to be be announced, from a company that wasn’t even in attendance: the Apple iSlate, scheduled for unveiling in two weeks.

A Wall Street Journal story described the iSlate as “a multimedia device that will let people watch movies and television shows, play games, surf the Internet and read electronic books and newspapers.”

The price, however, is a little ouch-worthy, estimated to be in the $1,000 range.

Rumors are swirling that print publishers such as the New York Times and McGraw-Hill have been contacted by Apple to provide content. Some are saying that this tablet is going to do for the printed word what the iPod did for music.

So, are we in the middle of a giant Gutenberg-esque quantum leap? Just think: In the past few decades, record stores, card catalogs and, now, perhaps bookshelves have been made obsolete by computers. A New Yorker cartoon I saw last week made mention of the same idea. What if we’re all replaced by apps? At the rate they are multiplying, it’s not such a crazy notion.

Lenovo also contributed to the tablet frenzy at CES with its tablet/notebook hybrid, the IdeaPad U1. When Lenovo’s Kevin Zheng demonstrated it, I actually gasped. He lifted the top piece, the screen, off what looked like a regular laptop, and the screen kept running. The effect was very much like a chicken running around with its head cut off (actually an apt metaphor for many of us at CES). Somebody yelled across the room, “Oh, you broke it again!” But of course, he hadn’t. The top piece can work as either a regular screen to a notebook PC, or function independently, wirelessly, as a tablet/music player/multimedia device. Maybe everyone thinking about buying a Kindle or a tablet should just wait until the second half of the year when the IdeaPad U1 is scheduled to go on sale. The price, again, will be around that magic number, $1,000. But still, for a cool grand, you get a notebook PC and a tablet.

But if it’s a simple e-reader you’re interested in, you might consider checking out the Que from Plastic Logic. Weighing about a pound, the Que starts at $649 for a Wi-Fi version and is designed for the busy professional who has to get through a lot of newspapers, journals, PowerPoint slides, and charts. It runs on a Windows CE operating system and can sync with your BlackBerry. It has an airplane-safe mode, and the company said that the shatter-resistant, 10.7-inch, black-and-white screen is actually easier on the eyes than a regular backlit computer screen. A version with a 3G connection and 8G capacity sells for $799.

CES this year was truly overwhelming. I figure I saw perhaps 10 percent of everything that was there. Almost everyone I saw was looking down at some kind of screen, either handheld or laptop, the whole time. As I contemplated the vast computing power present at CES, I found myself thinking back to my first experience with a computer. This is way back, folks, before "Pac-Man," before Atari. You’re closer if you think of Rosie the robot maid on “The Jetsons.”

I encountered my first “computer” when I was in fourth grade, at the annual fundraising bazaar of the high school that I ended up attending five or six years later. My best friend and I were a little giddy that day, hanging around high-school kids. A sign said, “Ask the computer.” We wrote down questions on punch cards and passed them through a slot. I wrote, “I’m an Olivetti typewriter. Would you go out with me?” How cool was I? The “computer” flashed some colored lights and beeped a little. A minute later it spit out a punch card that said, “I don’t date Italians.” Of course, the “computer” was one of my older brother’s classmates, typing behind a cardboard screen.

Thus goes our journey from cardboard box to CES. Who could foresee that computers would indeed run the world, not to mention several Italian dating sites.

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