With No U.S. Launches, What Exactly Is Lenovo's Tablet Strategy?

Despite having one of the most alluring portfolios of tablet devices, Lenovo is taking a cautious, wait-and-see approach to the market and currently has no U.S. release schedule for its tablet products.

Last month at CES 2011 Lenovo turned heads with its new tablets, just as it did the year before. Yet even with the positive buzz surrounding its products, such as the LePad tablet and the IdeaPad U1 hybrid notebook-tablet device, Lenovo is holding off on releasing those products outside China.

It's a puzzling decision considering the growing landslide of tablets coming from rival computer makers such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Samsung and Toshiba, not to mention smartphone makers such as Motorola and Research In Motion.

Instead of joining the frenzy, Lenovo seems to be the only major vendor holding back, launching the LePad tablet in China only, where Lenovo's business is strongest, and observing how the device performs there before looking at expanding to Europe and/or North America.

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"We don't want to just throw a bunch of tablets out there like other manufacturers," said Luis Hernandez, executive director of Lenovo's ThinkPad group, at CES. "We want to study the space first."

Lenovo, however, has been sending mixed signals that indicate anything but caution in the tablet space. Shortly after CES, Lenovo formally created a new business division called the Mobile Internet and Digital Home Group to focus on tablets and smartphones, and appointed Liu Jun, formerly president of Lenovo’s Product Group, as its new president.

Then Lenovo formed a joint venture with Japanese manufacturer NEC to expand its business in Japan. Lenovo will own 51 percent of the venture, named NEC Lenovo Group Japan, and reportedly will concentrate on smartphones and tablets in the region.

And most recently, in an interview with Bloomberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, Lenovo Chairman Liu Chuanzhi said his company has an "extreme focus" on tablets and smartphones, adding that these mobile devices would dominate the future of the computer market.

So what is Lenovo's mobile device strategy exactly? According to a Lenovo spokesperson, the company is employing a "protect and attack" strategy -- protecting the computer maker's core enterprise business around the world and its strong consumer business in China, while also attacking key emerging markets (tablets, smartphones, and smart TVs) and consumer markets outside China.

NEXT: Inside Lenovo's "Protect And Attack" Strategy

Under the "protect and attack" doctrine, Lenovo will introduce the LePad slate, along with the already available IdeaPad U1, this quarter in China. The plan has served Lenovo well in the past; the company introduced its first smartphone, the LePhone, last year in China only and saw strong sales for the device, which is competing head-to-head with Apple's iPhone.

But the LePhone has yet to be released outside China. And while Lenovo won't commit to saying the LePad and IdeaPad U1 will definitely be released in other regions, the company said the plan is "to bring these types of products outside of China" on a timetable based on the market conditions in the individual regions.

"Each region has its own unique requirements," Hernandez told CRN. "In China, we have a strong consumer play and very well-defined routes to market. We're going to learn a lot with the LePad in China, and then we'll be able to develop the right products and approach for other regions."

Lenovo's also taking a cautious approach with its second tablet model, the IdeaPad Slate, which was also shown at CES this year. Similar to the LePad's form factor, the 10.1-inch IdeaPad Slate carries an Intel processor and Windows 7 rather than the LePad's Android OS and Qualcomm Snapdragon chip. But Lenovo repeatedly has stressed that the IdeaPad Slate is a prototype under development and that customers shouldn't be expecting the device to be released anytime soon. Lenovo's Web site simply states: "Other specs will become available later this year when the product comes to market." It does not specify where the IdeaPad Slate will be released.

NEXT: Lenovo Partners Talk Tablets

Clearly, Lenovo has the "protect" element of its plan in place for tablets. But what about the "attack" phase? Will these products eventually make their way into Europe and North America? And if they do, will they be too late?

Some Lenovo partners aren’t worried the company will miss the boat. "A lot of people in the media say they're late to the game," said Mark Wyllie, CEO of Flagship Solutions Group, Boca Raton, Fla. "I don't think there's such a thing as late to the game."

That said, Wyllie is eager to see some of Lenovo's new items in the U.S. I think their IdeaPad [U1] hybrid is about the most innovative thing I've seen in about 20 years," he said. "We've been waiting for that one for a long time."

Michael Kelley, president of Enterprise Network Consulting, New Orleans, also has been waiting for Lenovo's smartphone and tablet offerings to arrive in the U.S. channel, and he's confident it will happen in the near future. "It's their business model to release a product in China and make sure all the bugs are taken out before it comes to the U.S.," Kelley said. "We do think Lenovo will bring their smartphones and tablets to North America."

Michael Bowman, vice president and CIO of Computer Service Partners, a Raleigh, N.C.-based Lenovo reseller, sees a big opportunity for Lenovo in smartphones and tablets as well as in related cloud computing solutions. "The newer classes of [mobile] devices we see as being an evolutionary path," Bowman said. "We sell tablets and have for years, and I would expect that customers will move toward tablet or slate devices in the near future."

"Can Lenovo come up with a good device? I'm sure they can. The cloud device depends on the functionality that the user wants," he said. "It's not based on the vendor, so they have as good a chance as anybody if you look across the spectrum of PC vendors, albeit they're a later entry than some of the others."

Lenovo may be the one major computer maker that's taking its time with tablets rather than rushing into the market in hopes of capturing iPad-like success. As a result, partners will have to wait patiently to get their hands on devices like the IdeaPad Slate and hope Lenovo doesn't lose any momentum in the market.