British Telecom, Sony May Be Latest in the Mobile Computing Tablet Fray

The latest names to look at the tablet PC market are Sony and British Telecom, following the lead of the Apple iPad despite some recent, high-profile retreats from the space by other technology giants.

British Telecom's CEO Ian Livingston told the London Daily Mail that his company is looking to release a tablet oriented around communications that would be a cross between "a mini PC" and "the telephone of the future."

It would have a built-in cell phone, something Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPad does not have. The BT tablet would allow users to communicate either through a Bluetooth headset or a built-in speaker and will be centered around e-mail, Web browsing and text messaging capabilities.

"Some people have called it an 'iPad killer,' but not us," he told the Telegraph. "We see it as is a new device that would be in the kitchen or the lounge, so that you have all your communications in one place -- your e-mail, your voicemail, your text messages." He went on to say there would be applets for things like weather and a news feed.

"We've talked to a lot of customers about it -- it's not just something we've dreamed up. We've designed something around what the customers have said rather than around what technologists have said," Livingston said.

He did not give a timeline, however, and a U.S. spokesperson for the telecom giant was not certain whether the device would be sold in the United States.

Meanwhile, consumer electronics colossus Sony is considering a tablet PC of its own, but wants to see if there's a market for it -- Apple's 1.3 million sales in the first month notwithstanding. "The iPad has created a new opportunity," Mike Abary, senior vice president of Sony's Information Technology Products unit told Bloomberg News.

"Now we can get a good judgment as to whether the market is truly accepting of it,” he said, adding that Sony is “not convinced there is a large enough market to justify bringing out a tablet."

For now, Sony plans to keep focusing on its e-book readers, the company said, with Abary describing the product category as the company's fastest-growing in its most recent fiscal year, and that Sony's Reader division is working to improve wireless connectivity and battery life as well as adding color displays.

With word of tablets being canceled or postponed -- Microsoft's Courier and HP's Slate have both been scuttled, while Research in Motion's rumored BlackBerry tablet is reportedly coming later this year instead of mid-year like originally planned -- it's clear Apple has sent everyone back to the drawing board.

That could make for one smart move to follow up a bad one, said John Jacobs, analyst with DisplaySearch.

"Before the iPad came out, you had people basing business plans on rumors of what Apple was going to do," he told InternetNews.com. "That placing your destiny in someone else's hands, which is a pretty dumb thing to do."

But Sony might be gun-shy after high-profile embarrassments like Betamax and Mini-Disc and the bloodbath around high-definition DVD. It could be the company that once dominated consumer electronics has lost its nerve, and that would be a mistake, too, Jacobs said.

"Do you lead the market or let the market lead you? That's like saying in 1900 there's no market for cars. Do you want to be Henry Ford or the last guy making buggy whips?" he said.

"The pace of innovation is so fast, if you wait you'll find yourselves left out of the party. Sony should be looking forward, not backward. They need to look at their roots and see what made Sony great," he added.

To compete, though, Sony and BT may still have their work cut out for them, Jacobs said. For instance, they or any other vendor looking to succeed can't simply produce "a notebook without a hinge," he said.

They will need products that focus on battery life, 3G and Wi-Fi, a pay-as-you-go deal like Apple has with AT&T, and be flexible for customer customization, and be at least 25 to 35 percent cheaper than the iPad, he added.

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.


iPad, Apple, tablet, mobile computing, Sony