It's raining tablets.
Hoping to nip away at Apple Inc.'s iPad and the $20-billion market it now controls, dozens of manufacturers are unveiling more than 80 touch screen computers at the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual tech showcase here.
The rush is on not only because of the hugely successful iPad but because manufacturers are betting that the tablet computer will become a ubiquitous household gadget.
"Today we think of tablets as mobile devices, but as prices come down we might see them around the home used for all kinds of uses," said Ross Rubin, an analyst for technology research firm NPD Group. "There might be one that's more for watching, or a more durable one that the kids play with for education."
Or even as digital picture frames, weather dashboards or recipe books, Rubin added.
During the keynote address by Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, the company demonstrated a handful of new tablets powered by its Windows operating system.
One of the upcoming applications for the tablets will be a news-reading app from The Times' parent company, Tribune Co. The application, called Mosaic, creates a moving set of touchable photographs that, when tapped, reveal a headline associated with the photo that users can open and read.
"It's a very different, visual way for readers to sort through and personalize how they want to see news delivered," said Eddy Hartenstein, Tribune's co-president. "You just touch it and it blossoms."
The program can be used to read news from a number of Tribune's newspapers, including The Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Hartford Courant. Users can also choose to add "feeds" from blogs, Twitter and other online sources.
The application will be available in a digital store associated with Microsoft's tablets and will be free. The app will include higher-resolution advertising, Tribune officials said, rather than the lower-resolution ads often found online.
Newspapers have been under siege over the last few years as readers cancel their paid print subscriptions and hop online to get the same articles for free. Some publishers had hoped that online advertising revenue would eventually make up the shortfall in print advertising and subscriptions. Instead, online ad revenues declined 12% in 2009, according to the latest figures available from the Newspaper Assn. of America.
"As newspaper print revenue continues to decline, online ad revenue hasn't been able to compensate for those losses," said Greg Sterling, analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence. "Now everyone is considering paid models."
The emergence of tablets and mobile devices has presented publishers with a new opportunity to entice readers to pay for news delivered on those devices. But it's not a slam dunk to get people to subscribe, said Alan Mutter, a San Francisco media analyst.
Consumers, albeit a small minority, have shown a willingness to spend money for news. In a Pew Research Center report released in December, 18% of 755 Internet users said they had paid for digital articles or reports from newspapers or magazines at least once.
"It would be miraculous to get people to pay for news on the Internet," Sterling said. "On tablets, there is a better shot, but the pricing and the user experience has to be good."
Microsoft's tablet announcement would be the second at CES in as many years — a year ago Ballmer showed off versions of Microsoft's so-called Slate. But the Slate never came out, and Apple's iPad became the first tablet to capture wide attention when it was announced a few weeks later.
Other stars of the show included major electronics manufacturers such as LG, Samsung and Dell, as well as a number of lesser-known companies with niche approaches to the tablet. Nearly all of the new tablet devices being announced this week will be powered by Microsoft or Google Inc. software.
Austin, Texas-based Motion Inc. showed off a $1,000 "ruggedized" device aimed at physically demanding industries such as construction, healthcare and in-store retail, and built to withstand both the elements and rough handling.
"Below freezing or above 100 degrees? No problem," a Motion brochure says. "Dropped from 4 feet? Like it never happened."
To differentiate itself from many other tablets that work with Android or Windows, Chinese manufacturer Lenovo released a device that does both. Expected to be released sometime in the first quarter, the $520 LePad runs Android software until it is attached to a laptop-like docking station, which converts the tablet to a screen for the Windows operating system.
That feature may appeal to a relatively minor audience but Rubin, the analyst, said it's still just the beginning for tablets — and this is an industry that likes to throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.