Battle of the Vaporware Tablets

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.

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