The coming launch of Apple's iPad has helped ignite interest in tablet computers in China, where a growing number of companies are planning similar devices.
Some Chinese companies are already selling the touchscreen, slate-style devices and more are likely to reveal plans for them in coming months.
One Chinese company that could boost the spread of tablet computers is Fuzhou Rockchip Electronics, a chip design company based in China's coastal Fujian province. One of the company's products, a package of hardware and software on top of which clients can design portable devices with Google's Android operating system, drew added interest after Apple announced the iPad, said Miao Lifeng, a marketing employee at Rockchip.
The company has about 10 customers in China and over 30 worldwide using its package, which includes a microprocessor with an Arm core, to develop Android devices such as tablets, media players and digital picture frames, Miao said. Dozens of other potential customers have approached Rockchip about the Android package, he said. Rockchip advertises the package on its Web site as being usable for mobile Internet devices including "tablet computers like the iPad."
The retail price of an Android device based on the Rockchip package could fall well under US$199 if it does not include 3G connectivity, Miao said.
A tablet computer at that price would cost less than half as much as an iPad, which starts at $499.
"I am most bullish about the Android system, because Arm [chips] are inexpensive," said an official at Chinese device maker Teso, whose surname is Wu, in a recent interview. Many Android devices use processors with Arm cores, though vendors in both China and the West are also making tablet PCs that use Windows and an x86 processor, such as Intel's Atom processor.
Wu's company this month showed off two upcoming tablet computers at a trade show, including one running Android and another made to look like a big-screen iPhone.
Few Chinese tablets are already on sale. Chinese electronics bazaars are full of devices with screens between 4 inches and 10 inches, but most of them are simpler gadgets such as GPS units. At one bazaar in Shenzhen, vendors were selling only two tablet computers, each of which was controlled with a stylus, looked nearly an inch thick and had an asking price of over 2,200 yuan (US$320). One was labeled with the brand eSuper, while the other was labeled FSL. One appeared to be running a pirated version of Windows XP.
Chinese companies that have announced tablet computers include Hanvon Technology, which also makes e-readers, and Huawei Technologies, which is best known for its networking gear. One company that already sells a tablet computer, Shenzhen Great Loong Brother Industrial, has said it wouldn't rule out suing Apple over the similar outer design of the iPad, even though the Chinese company previously billed its own tablet as an imitation Apple product.
Shenzhen KRT Technology, another device maker, shows several tablet computers on its Web site, including one that it bills as the country's first with multitouch, or the ability to control the screen with two fingers at once.
A report in the Shenzhen Economic Daily quoted officials at three companies developing iPad-like devices, including one Android tablet. The companies, all based in the electronics manufacturing base of Shenzhen, could not be reached to confirm the report.
Apple will start selling the iPad this Saturday. It has not said if it will offer the device in China, but network operator China Mobile has said it is interested in offering the iPad.