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No Room at the Disco For Small-Time Tablet Makers

Remember 2008, when you weren't ashamed to be seen with your BlackBerry, and netbooks were all the rage? Nine- and 10-inch systems were so hot in the streets that dozens of small companies tried to crash the party with newer, cheaper, or just plain weirder designs. My fellow geeks will recall such notables as the Everex Cloudbook that crashed to earth, the Emtech Gdium Liberty 1000 that freed users from the tyranny of internal storage, and the Workhorse netbook that didn't labor very hard. Even Disney and Sylvania (yes, the lightbulb brand) got into the game.

Today, we remember the netbook age the same way we  recall the disco era, highlighting both its enduring successes (ASUS, ABBA) and time-limited excesses (Everex, Boney M). In the future, we'll fondly remember the tablet epoch for its many one-hit wonders and innovative also-rans. In just the past few weeks, we've watched as both Augen and Viliv fell into the tablet inferno and once-enthusiastic fans of the Notion Ink Adam accused that company of doing the hustle on them. It's a shame, but there's just no space on this party train for smaller players who want to rock the boat.

Just as with netbooks and desktop PCs before them, the tablet market has started to calcify. A year from now, we'll be able to separate those who will survive from the hit-and-run lovers. Many Apple fans think the iPad winner will take it all, but a new study from Retrevo shows a window of opportunity for other vendors. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said that they'd take a chance on an Android tablet that costs less than $250.

The study also reveals that only 50 percent of consumers insist on an iPad over other kinds of tablet. Fifty-five percent of respondents were willing to purchase an Amazon-branded tablet, with more than 30 percent willing to buy from Dell, HP, Motorola, and Samsung.

There's no word on whether these same respondents would buy a tablet from Fusion Garage, CherryPal, or ExoPC, but the chances of them taking a risk on one of these smaller brands gets smaller every day. That's a shame, because many of these lesser-known companies are really pushing the envelope.

At CES 2011, Viliv showed off a Windows 7 tablet with a tiny touchpad on one side of the bezel and two touch-sensitive mouse buttons on the other side. Augen's GenTouch78 was a horrible piece of garbage, but its sub-$200 price broke new ground when it briefly graced the shelves at Kmart last summer. EFun, which is still in business, is selling an Android tablet which interfaces with a ballpoint pen. ExoPC, also still around, invented an amazing circle-based UI for Windows slates.

Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for new tablet form factors and operating systems is closing. Not only is this the last dance for small vendors, but large, well-heeled companies such as HP and RIM are struggling to keep their cakes out of the rain. 

Soon we'll know for certain whether new platforms such as webOS for slates and BlackBerry Tablet OS have any kind of staying power, but my bet is that at least one of them—probably Tablet OS—goes away within 6 months. In 2012, the likes of Acer and Dell will be selling competent $250 Android tablets at major chains. At that time, the PlayBook and the TouchPad could be fondly remembered as early takes on popular platforms, or as the "Disco Ducks" of the tablet era, overindulgent releases that marked the beginning of the end. Party on!

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and infrastructure of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every week or follow Avram on twitter.