Top companies like Hewlett-Packard Co. and Google Inc. planning to come out with tablet computers have a lot of work ahead of them if they want to compete with and beat Apple Inc.'s popular iPad device.
Google's plan for a tablet came out this week after CEO Eric Schmidt reportedly revealed some details during a party with friends. The New York Times reported Schmidt's slip that Google is experimenting with an Android-based device.
Meanwhile, HP last week http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9174886/HP_takes_on_Apple_s_iPad_with_Slate_tablet started leaking information about its own Slate tablet computer in blog posts and in teaser videos posted on YouTube. Slate is expected to ship by mid-year.
Right out of the box, each of these computers will have to face Apple's highly touted iPad, which was released amid a flurry of hype and excitement early this month.
Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, said that any company that wants to battle the iPad will have to focus on putting out some phenomenal marketing -- the iPad is already the cool device to carry into the local cafe, to use at work or pull out on the morning commuter train.
But he added that Apple certainly isn't unbeatable yet in the tablet business. "The market won't mature for a few years and, until then, it is still anyone's game," Enderle said.
Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, suggested that the iPad rivals focus on offering solid features rather that searching for that one killer app.
"Tablets are tweener devices," Olds said. "They're not really PCs and not PDAs. To catch on with consumers, they need to offer utility that can't be found in either [PCs or PDAs].
Olds added that he expects tablets to complement PCs and notebook computers -- "[it's] something that someone would take on a quick trip or keep in the family room. Because they don't replace other devices, they would need to offer a lot of flexibility and come in at the right price point."
Olds also noted that a competitive tablet must at least come in a small form factor and offer lots of connectivity options and basic productivity tools like word processing, calendar and e-mail applications.
To rake on the iPad, competing tablets must immediately be powerful enough to store and play media files, and offer enough battery life to last longer than a traditional notebook.
Both Olds and Enderle noted that Google could have a leg up on the other emerging iPad competitors because of the company's extensive online book collection.
"With Google's ownership and licensing of printed books, I would think this device might be their play to take away some of the Kindle and Sony e-reader market," said Olds. "In fact, it would also make them a more potent competitor to the iPad, which has been widely touted as a Kindle killer."
Olds also noted that "Google can bring a fair amount of innovation to a tablet. They have their own operating system now, plus a slate of apps that can be integrated into it. I would also expect that they would come in well under Apple in terms of price."
Enderle restated that in addition to the feature list, iPad competitors must hit on all cylinders when it comes to marketing.
"A combination of poor user experience and poor marketing would be a killer," Enderle said.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.