Ina Fried

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Making Sense of All the Tablet Announcements Coming at CES

Prepare to be inundated with tablet announcements over the next 72 hours. In fact, the announcements have already begun, as neither Toshiba nor Vizio could quite wait until the Consumer Electronics Show starts later this week.

But also be prepared for many of these tablets to evaporate into pillars of dust (or at least be relegated to the dustbins of history).

A good corollary is the e-reader market. There were tons of e-readers at the Consumer Electronics Show last year. And indeed, the space has grown beyond the Kindle, but most of the market is divided between the Amazon e-reader and top competitors like the Nook, along with a lot of also-rans and a fair number of products that never made it out of the gate.

Here are some factors to separate the Ten Commandments and Rosetta Stones from the tablets that are just funny-shaped slabs of stone.

1. Distribution

It’s all well and good that Company X wants to sell a tablet, but it’s only got a chance if it can convince either some big retailers or some major carriers to stock it on their store shelves.

2. Software strategy and partnerships

A lot of the products being announced are from PC or cellphone makers just jumping into the next shape of the device. What makes tablets interesting isn’t their shape; it’s what they allow you to do. So far, that’s been largely the easy consumption of media and Web content, but there could be other compelling uses on the business side.

On the Android side, the version of the operating system matters as well. Andy Rubin has said that Honeycomb is designed with tablets in mind. Although Samsung has won plaudits for cramming an older version onto the Galaxy Tab, expect the bar to be raised by the first Honeycomb tablet, which many expect Motorola to show off at CES. Once it does, any tablet running an older version of Android may seem lackluster by comparison.

As for the Windows slates, you get the good and bad of Windows. On the plus side, such machines are highly compatible with other PC software. However, Windows (even the more touch-friendly Windows 7) doesn’t really shine without a keyboard and mouse nearby, and Windows machines don’t get the battery life seen by the iPad and other ARM-based devices. Microsoft is expected to show Windows running on ARM at CES, but that software and any tablets running it are still many months, if not years, off.

In any case, if the software and services aren’t good, all you have is a computer that is missing its keyboard. Remember, there have been slate computers on the market for years.

3. Timing

There are a lot of announcements coming at CES, but first to announce doesn’t mean first to market. A key question for all these new entrants is just when one will be able to buy their precious tablets. Toshiba, for example, said its Android-powered tablet won’t be out until the summer.

Also, not all the major players are sharing their plans at CES. But some of the tablets that are introduced after this week will still beat some of the CES-announced products to market. RIM’s PlayBook is scheduled to be out by March, while HP has scheduled a Feb. 9 event in San Francisco to talk about its webOS plans.

4. Price

A low price won’t make a product a success, but too high of a price can doom it to failure. The iPad is the barometer here, so companies know the price they have to beat.

5. The iPad

There wasn’t a consumer market at all for these devices until the iPad came and created it. It still dominates the market and is likely to do so for some time. While there is probably room for some non-iPad competitors, all tablets are going to be compared to Apple’s.

So any would-be rival needs to have some sort of leg up on the iPad. The most frequently seized upon shortcomings are the lack of Flash support and USB ports, but there are other opportunities.

Still, not only is the iPad not going away–it’s likely to get some enhancements in fairly short order. The products that sound good in Las Vegas might have lost their luster by the time they come to market (if they make it that far).

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google