Asus, fifth and rising in tablet market

Taiwanese vendor set to unveil more high-end tablets, and is said to be Google's choice for low-cost device

Asus has won critical praise for its early tablets, including the quad-core Transformer Prime TF201 that was released last year and the new quad-core Transformer Pad TF300T that will be available in some U.S. retail stores next week.

And it continues to improve its place in the crowded market -- moving into the Top 5 list of suppliers for the first time in 2011, according to the latest research from IDC. Asus ranked fifth in tablet shipments in both the U.S. and world in 2011 with a 2.3% share of the U.S. tablet market and a 2.5% share of the worldwide market.

Apple's iPad was at the top of both lists.

Though Asus still lags somewhat behind the market leaders, its influence on the market is clearly on the rise and could move it further up the tablet list, analysts say.

For instance, along with launching an array of powerful higher-priced new tablets, Asus is reported to be Google's choice to supply a low-priced $200 device said to be called Google Play. The Google tablet would run Ice Cream Sandwich and a Tegra 3 quad-core processor, reports say.

The reports suggest Google is looking to launch the new tablet at its Google I/O developer conference in late June.

If Google does pick Asus to make its low-cost tablet, it would be bypassing a company it has agreed to acquire -- Motorola Mobility. That $12.5 billion deal has been held up by the Chinese government.

Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC, said he's heard from reliable sources that Google will be tapping Asus for Google Play, but doesn't know if the device could be co-branded with Asus or what it will look like.

Play is expected to be a 7-in. tablet, so it would be hard to pair it with a full keyboard as Asus has done with the 10.1-in Transformer Prime and Pad models, O'Donnell added.

"Asus is known for being innovative and willing to try a lot of things," he said. "They are still not a household name, but have come a long way."

Asus is also expected to be heavily involved in producing devices based on future Android rollouts, including Android 5.0, also known as Jelly Bean. Android 5.0 is expected to launch in the fall of 2012.

The Taiwanese company says the activity around it befits the name ASUS, derived from the last four letters of Pegasus, the winged horse in Greek mythology.

Despite its aspirations, analysts say there could be problems ahead for Asus and other Android tablet makers who prefer to make devices based on the pure open-source Google Android rather than creating a customized version, like the Android-based operating systems that run Amazon's Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook.

Forrester Research this week concluded that by 2015, sales of mostly content-consumption devices devices running proprietary versions of Android will surpass sales of pure Android-based tablets.

Frank Gillett, a Forrester analyst, said he expects Asus to find more success selling budget devices like the Google Play than premium-priced hardware like the Asus Transformer Prime. The latter device sports a $499 price tag for a 32GB version, and $150 more for a keyboard dock.

"It looks harder for Asus to grab market position with premium [tablet] hardware," Gillett said in an interview. "All the Asian OEM's will pursue the budget market," he added, since those low-cost devices will sell better in emerging markets.

Gillett said it makes sense for Google to produce a tablet with Asus because of the hardware maker's reputation for quality. "If you know Asus for its quality, the hardware will move," he said.

IDC analyst Tom Mainelli agreed that pure-play Android tablets like those made by Asus will face trouble competing with tablets running proprietary Android implementations.

"The success of low-priced tablets running custom Android versions (like the Kindle Fire and Nook Color and Nook Tablet) will make life increasingly difficult for pure-play Android tablet vendors that are caught between Apple's high-end dominance and these products' capture of the low end," Mainelli wrote in a report released this month.

"The impact of Google continuing to tinker with its ecosystem (the move to Play) and the rumors of its own low-priced tablet are hard to gauge at the moment," he added.

Whatever happens to Asus and Google with tablets, their biggest competitor will remain Apple's $499-plus iPad through 2016, both IDC and Forrester have forecast.

Many players are vying for a partial share of iPad's potential market. "A lot of people want to get in on what Apple kicked off with the iPad," Gillett said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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