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Never Mind the Featurephone, Here Comes the FeatureTablet.

Let's start calling the new low-end tablet the "FeatureTablet" because of its strong similarities to the Featurephone. And soon - since they are already here.

For Horace Dediu, the influential mobile pundit behind the asymco blog, even his throwaway comments are more interesting than the best stuff of other analysts. Case in point: on Thursday, Dediu wrote that "feature tablets" are coming, and not only will be "analogous" to featurephones but also will "be viable as niche businesses quite soon." Provocative stuff - though not totally correct in my opinion.

FeatureTablets are already a big business today, though, granted, nobody before Dediu thought to call them as such.

While the iPad gets all of the headlines, there is a surprisingly-large selection of full-fledged tablets running for between $100-$200. They are made either by low-end brands such as Coby, FocalPrice, PanImage and Velocity Micro, or are outright knockoffs from China, aka shanzhai.

Take Coby's 7-inch KYROS MID7015 tablet, which runs Android 2.1, has 1080p resolution, and 4 GB of internal storage. Price? $140 or so. Despite the low price (equal to a new 6-inch $139 Kindle), the KYROS (what is a Kyros, anyway? Oh. Right.) has garnered surprisingly good reviews on Amazon (3.5/5 stars from 231 reviewers).

Buoyed by that apparent success, Coby is releasing a 10-inch tablet, the KYROS MID1024, that Amazon lists for $266, or almost half of the cheapest iPad.

The even bigger segment of what I call FeatureTablets are e-readers like the Kindle or Nook. That may be heresy to some. But in my book, they are perfect examples of FeatureTablets.

Why? E-readers are great for reading e-books. But they are bad or entirely incapable of doing anything else. Hmm, isn't that just like a FeaturePhone - great for phone calls, but bad at everything else?

Moreover, every pundit expects e-readers to morph into low-end tablets. Why? For one, single-purpose devices like MP3 players, GPSes, and digital cameras are slowly becoming extinct due to the smartphone. E-readers are no different - multi-purpose, app-enabled media tablets are the only way forward.

It won't be difficult. The hardware is already nearly identical. So is the software (base) - many e-readers like the Nook run Android (though the Kindle runs Linux).

FeatureTablets like this 7-inch, $140 Android tablet from Coby are starting to take off. But will they surpass the iPad and other $500+ prosumer tablets in the West?

Earlier this year, I tried my hand at trend-spotting/jargon-hunting by predicting that the Superphone category/term would catch on this year, as an additional tier above Featurephones and Smartphones. Indeed, there does seem to be some momentum for it.

So what's my prediction? Here goes:

1) As with cellphones, the tablet category will likely break into three tiers:

a) High-end enterprise tablets from the likes of Avaya and Cisco that will be priced near $1,000 and above;

b) Consumer/professional media tablets like the Tab, Xoom, Playbook and iPad priced in the $500-$800 range;

c) Low-end FeatureTablets that will be priced between $100-$300.

2) FeatureTablets will overwhelmingly run Android. Though, at least for this year, expect many of them to lack the tablet-optimized Android 3.0 Honeycomb (don't count on them being upgradeable to Honeycomb, either).

3) On a superficial level, FeatureTablets will sport specs that appear to match those of more expensive tablets like the iPad. By cost necessity, they will fall short in reality:

a) CPU. While most $500+ tablets this year all sport dual-core CPUs with fast graphics, FeatureTablets will, at least this year, be restricted to single-core chips, some of them seriously slow. For instance, the $99 Maylong M-150 ships with a 400 MHz CPU. For cost reasons, some FeatureTablets will be MIPS chips, rather than ARM.

b) Battery life. For instance, the zenPad from Enso runs for about 4.5 hours, less than half the iPad's 10 hours.

c) Type of touchscreen. For instance, the Coby above uses a resistive touchscreen that requires a stylus, rather than a finger-based capacitive touchscreen.

d) Screen resolution and brightness. 'Nuff said.

e) Material and build quality. For instance, the review of the Maylong notes "if you press hard enough with just one hand, you can make the entire thing flex - yes, including the screen. Don't sit on it."

f) Software/app integration. Many FeatureTablets don't natively run the full-fledged Android Market for apps, or run downloaded apps poorly due to mysterious bugs. E-readers, obviously, do not run apps at all.

4) While FeatureTablets will be available at no shortage of mainstream e-commerce sites such as NewEgg or Amazon.com, the bulk of them will be sold through channels that reach less-techie, extremely-price-sensitive consumers. Think: drugstores such as Walgreens or CVS, Wal-Mart, QVC channel or, in Asia, computer malls.

5) Worldwide, FeatureTablets will quickly overtake mid-tier tablets like the iPad and PlayBook and become the volume market leader. In the United States, however, it's not clear if/when FeatureTablets will do the same. Think of the way Apple has been able to attract numerous FeaturePhone upgraders with its $49 iPhone 3GS deal on AT&T.


Do you own a FeatureTablet? What is your experience? Based on the above, information, would you consider buying one?