Chinese firms plan tablet PCs amid Apple iPad hype

Several Chinese companies have jumped on the tablet PC bandwagon as buyers await the sale of Apple Inc.’s iPad, possibly presaging wide imitation of the Apple device in China.

Apple hasn’t said if it will sell the iPad in China, but some local companies there have already started selling or planning rival tablet computers with Windows 7, the first version of the Microsoft OS to offer a core multitouch control option suited for such devices.

Other Chinese vendors are taking orders for the iPad, planning to buy the device outside of China and informally take it back into the country before reselling it. The iPhone was similarly sold on the gray market in China long before its official release there late last year, and at least 1 million iPhones being used in China were not bought from official distributor China Unicom, according to analyst estimates.

One local company working on its own tablet is Teso, a device maker based in Shenzhen, the southern city known as the home of Chinese knock-off and imitation electronics, locally called “bandit” devices. The company plans to start shipping a 10.1-inch tablet with a multitouch touchscreen and an Intel Atom processor this month, a company employee surnamed Wu said via instant message, where his status message billed the product as an “imitation iPad tablet.”

The Teso device will cost around US$280 outside of China and about $330 inside the country, Wu said by phone. The tablet will weigh less than 0.9 kilograms (2 pounds) and allow users to surf the Internet with a 3G mobile connection.

Hanvon Technology, a Chinese maker of e-readers and other devices, plans to start shipping two tablet computers next month. Both will have 10-inch screens, Windows 7 and a price between 4,999 yuan and 5,999 yuan (US$730 to $877), a company marketing employee said. Their CPUs will come from Intel’s Atom and Celeron lines.

Another Chinese company, Shenzhen Great Loong Brother Industrial, already sells a tablet computer that looks similar to the iPad. The company has said it wouldn’t rule out suing Apple over the similar design, even though, as the blog iPadInsider has noted, the company once described its product as an imitation Apple device on a part of its Web site that has since become inaccessible.

Lenovo is China’s top PC maker and a global brand, but it also stepped into the tablet arena early this year by announcing its IdeaPad U1, a laptop with a touchscreen that can be detached and used as a tablet computer.

Many Chinese device makers appear to be waiting to see how the iPad actually sells, but if it performs well then a wave of imitation is certain, said Kevin Wang, an analyst at iSuppli.

“Bandit” mobile phones and netbooks, widely sold at electronics bazaars in China, have appeared both as blatant counterfeits of well-known products like the iPhone and merely as generic-looking devices from unknown brands. But their defining trait has been a low price, often at the cost of quality. The likely problem for imitation tablet PCs in China will be a lack of wide-ranging applications like the pool available for Apple’s iPad, Wang said.

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