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Electronics makers eager to get in on tablet craze

Just nine months ago, when Apple introduced the iPad, skeptics voiced doubts about its longevity. Even the product's name was the subject of jokes.

Now, the $16 billion market that the iPad controls has electronics makers eager to introduce their own tablets, hoping the device will become a ubiquitous household gadget.

The tablet category is attracting an almost deafening level of buzz, with hardware manufacturers such as Motorola Mobility, LG, Dell and Toshiba unveiling new devices.

The latest industry data project massive growth in tablet sales over the next several years. Yankee Group recently released its first forecast for the category, projecting global revenue from tablets will jump from $16 billion in 2010 to $46 billion in 2014. Dmitriy Molchanov, a Yankee Group analyst, called this growth unprecedented and said tablets are outstripping upward trends observed with HD TVs and MP3 players.

While mainstream devices such as the iPad and Samsung's Galaxy Tab are expected to drive most of the growth, tablet manufacturers are looking for ways to tailor them to niche segments.

Take Santa Monica, Calif.-based Rullingnet, for example. The technology company has designed a tablet, called Vinci, framed with soft-cornered handles for children up to 3 years old. The Vinci, still a prototype, offers games, storybooks and music videos designed to stimulate learning in toddlers.

Rullingnet is just one of several companies exploring how tablets can be tailored to demographics or specialty markets. A Canadian company called Ideal Life has introduced a product called the Health Tablet, which syncs information between health care providers and health records. Late last year, Santa Clara, Calif.-based startup Kno released a tablet for students that features textbook e-reading capability and productivity tools.

Niche tablet manufacturers are still in the minority. The industry continues to debate whether segmentation for different groups of consumers should be resolved through hardware or software and applications.

Matthew Growney, CEO of Concord, Mass.-based Isabella Products, which has a children's tablet called the Fable, is in the hardware camp when it comes to kid-friendly products. Because otherwise, he said, "Mom or dad will have to be comfortable giving away their $600 glass, nonjuice-proof tablet to their 6- or 7-year-old."

But the world of software and applications, which continues to grow as developers embrace tablets as a fresh form, provides a way to customize a device for different interests and ages. Barnes & Noble, for example, this week introduced Nook Kids, a children's e-reading app for the iPad.

Tablets are "nothing more than processors and a touch screen and some connectivity to Wi-Fi or 3G," said Andrew Eisner, director of content and community at electronics shopping site Retrevo. "There's not a lot of sophistication in them, so it's really the apps that's making the difference."

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