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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011
Panasonic and Sharp betting that, in Japan, 7 inches is enough
By RICK MARTIN
It's obvious that tablet computers are making their mark on the electronics world, with Hewlett Packard this past week citing "the tablet effect" as a reason to consider a spinoff of its PC business. That's big. Especially as the company also said that it will cease production of its own tablet, the TouchPad, less than two months after it hit the shelves — effectively throwing in the towel in the battle with the iPad.
The global popularity of the iPad is undeniable, but not everyone is willing to give up the fight. A couple of new tablets released in Japan in August show that some hardware makers believe that smaller, more portable devices could be just what local consumers are looking for.
Earlier this month, Panasonic unveiled its weapon in the Japanese tablet wars with its UT-PB1 e-book reader — a 7-inch tablet running on Google's Android operating system. It has a dual-core CPU and 8 gigabytes of onboard storage, though that can be expanded with the use of microSD or microSDHC cards. It weighs just 400 grams (compared with the 600-gram, 9.7-inch iPad 2), making it light enough to hold pretty comfortably in one hand — something that may be the secret of any future success.
The most intriguing aspect of the UT-PB1, however, is that it's the first device to feature Raboo (Rakuten Books), a new publishing platform from the online retailer Rakuten that opened on Aug. 10.
Rakuten has cooperated with contents provider booklista Co. Ltd to serve up 15,000 items (mostly books) from 96 publishers. There are 600 books preloaded onto the device available for preview, meaning that users have something to look at straight out of the box. Previewing is nice, but they'll have to pay if they want to read the full texts.
The UT-PB1 also comes with 16 preloaded applications, including basics such as a Web browser, email, photo gallery, and calendar. Other notable applications include radiko.jp Internet radio, the electronic edition of the Nikkei newspaper, and Adobe Reader for viewing PDF files.
Strangely, users will not have access to the Android app marketplace, so if you're looking for a more multifunctional tablet, rather than an e-book device, then this might not be for you. But as far as e-book platforms go, Rakuten's brand recognition might win it some trust out of the gate.
While the Panasonic tablet is currently the only way to access Raboo, Rakuten informs us that it expects to connect with Sony's reader, PC websites and smartphones sometime later this year.
The other new competitor to assert that smaller is better is set to arrive in late August, as Sharp and eAccess partner to provide the new 7-inch Galapagos (A01SH). The device will be the first on the Japanese market powered by the Android 3.2 operating system.
On the inside, the Galapagos is packing a dual-core Tegra 2 processor, as well as 1 gigabyte of memory. And while those specs are respectable, the fact that the device is running the new tablet-optimized iteration of Android should go a long way to ensuring snappy performance as well.
The new Galapagos will also be equipped with Wi-Fi and come bundled with a pocket mobile-router so that users can jump online anywhere. A representative with eAccess tells The Japan Times that the company is betting that tablet size will be a selling point for many Japanese users: "Currently iPad is the most popular tablet PC in Japan. But we expect the 7-inch tablet to become mainstream because it is easy to carry around and hold in one hand."
Indeed, at only 389 grams — a tad lighter than Panasonic's offering — the Galapagos is an attractive mobile device for users on the go.
For anyone familiar with having only one hand spare in a rush-hour train as they desperately hold on to the hand-strap — either of these two smaller tablets may be a better choice than the cumbersome iPad.
But it remains to be seen just what the "Goldilocks" size for the Japanese tablet market will be. Indeed, it may ultimately be no different than anywhere else on the planet. But at least a few makers are willing to test the waters with these diminutive tablets. Whether they succeed or go the way of Hewlett Packard — we'll just have to wait and see.