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System Builders Embrace Tablets

Custom system builders and boutique PC makers are carving out a niche in the suddenly crowded tablet market.

tablet PC

Whereas custom notebooks presented serious challenges to system builders more than a decade ago -- components were hard to come by, and prices were high -- the tablet has so far been the complete opposite; boutique computer makers have been able to quickly add tablets, slates and combination devices to their product lines and are already starting to see success, despite the intense competition from larger OEMs such as Apple, Samsung and Dell.

“We launched our first convertible tablet notebook in 2008 so we’ve been in the space for a long time,” said Erik Stromquist, COO of CTL Corp. in Portland, Ore. “For us, getting into the tablet business wasn’t a huge challenge because we have good relationships with our suppliers.”

When CTL introduced the Windows-based 10.1-inch 2goPad last year, the company originally targeted consumers and positioned the device as an iPad alternative. But Stromquist says CTL quickly realized it wasn’t the right approach for his company. “I think Apple will rule that space for the foreseeable future. We really found our stride in verticals like health care that have a mobile workforce.”

Another key for CTL was this: There was a wide-open door to fill the gap for Windows-based tablets. While a slew of hardware manufacturers have embraced Google’s Android operating system for tablets and mobile devices, Windows 7 has lagged behind. But Stromquist says there’s a big opportunity for Windows-based tablets for business users that want seamless integration with their desktop and/or notebook PCs.

Velocity Micro, a system builder based in Richmond, Va., got into the tablet game a little later than CTL but has still seen a strong return on its investment. “We started discussions on making tablets about a year-and-a-half ago around the time of CES,” said Josh Covington, marketing manager at Velocity Micro. “We first starting talking about e-readers since they were popular and the Kindle had just come out.”

The vibe around tablets was strikingly different in the winter of 2010 before the arrival of the iPad, Covington said. “No one seemed to want to jump into the market at that point. They didn’t want to invest millions in a new business, and it was a big challenge for companies like us because we had to find factories to supply the parts, too,” Covington said. “But once Apple arrived, we were actually approached by several different Chinese ODMs who were shipping parts for tablets and wanted to see if we were interested in building them.”

Velocity Micro was interested, but it didn’t build a tablet line overnight -- Covington admits that the first few prototypes his company made “looked like they were stuck together with super glue.” However, by July Velocity Micro had launched both the 7-inch Cruz Reader and 7-inch Cruz Tablet. Unlike CTL’s 2goPad, Velocity Micro’s Cruz series is based on Android.

“There are a lot of people waiting for a strong Android tablet,” Covington said. “It’s a real tablet OS now with Android 3.0. Six months ago I would have been skeptical, but now it’s ready.”

NEXT: The Price Of Admission

The Price Of Admission

Stromquist says there’s another reason why system builders have been able to get into the tablet game, one that has more to do with how the IT industry has changed over the past decade. “With notebooks years ago, you had to buy a lot of the parts through different distribution outlets, which was more expensive,” he said. “But now, components are cheaper and you can get all the necessary parts from one supplier.”

As options for sourcing components have grown, the prices for those parts have fallen. As a result, system builders can build customized tablets and still enjoy enough margins to make the effort worthwhile. “Tablets are comparable to notebooks—there’s not a ton of margin,” Covington said. “But it’s enough to make the business worthwhile. And obviously the demand is high.”

Still, with the explosion of new tablet devices and intense competition around such a hot new market, there’s bound to be pricing pressure. Motorola’s Xoom tablet was roundly criticized as being too expensive (the Wi-Fi only version cost $599 while the iPad starts at $499). “We tried to be under $500 even back in 2008,” Stromquist said.

But system builders are finding they can play in a wide price range. For example, Velocity Micro’s 7-inch T301 tablet, which offers 256 MB of RAM and 2 GB of storage, starts at $199, while CTL’s 10.1-inch 2goPad Pro, which boasts 2 GB of memory, 3G wireless and a 64-GB solid-state drive, starts at $799.

Another factor that’s helped system builders get into tablet making is the wide variety of components that are available. Instead of resorting to a cookie-cutter approach, computer makers have options for CPUs, storage, motherboards and, of course, operating systems. Tablet processors, for example, have suddenly flooded the market, from Intel’s new Atom Oak Trail platform and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor to Nvidia Tegra 2 model and numerous other ARM chips.

Still, system builders don’t expect the technical specifications to be as influential for customers as the application ecosystem and, of course, the form factor. “I don’t think the specs are going to accelerate the way they have for desktops,” Covington said. “It won’t be about speeds and feeds for tablets. It will be about the weight, look and feel of the device.”

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