Beyond the iPad: 'White-box' tablet numbers explode

White-box tablet numbers have jumped in recent months, but the market may fade as quickly as it grew, as vendors discover the importance of offering potential buyers a complete tablet experience.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read

In the shadow of tablet titan Apple, a market for white-box tablets has sprung up, brimming with inexpensive offerings. But it may be short-lived, underscoring the importance of a holistic design, according to a market research firm.

A few samples of the thousands of tablets listed on the China-based Alibaba Web site.
A few samples of the thousands of tablets listed on the China-based Alibaba Web site. Alibaba

In the wake of reports of supply shortages for 9.7-inch displays--the size Apple's iPad 2 uses--it may be the case that one person's shortage is another's market opportunity.

In a blog posted this week, market researcher DisplaySearch said there's been a "growing" market for tablets using panels "that have been passed over by Apple and HP, the two most widely noted vendors for those panels."

"When we were doing checks for Q1 (first quarter), we noticed that for 9.7-inch, 1024-by-768 panels, there was a discrepancy in the numbers that were produced versus the numbers that Apple and HP were reporting. So, there were a couple million of these tablets produced," DisplaySearch analyst Richard Shim said in a phone interview.

"Essentially, this is a white-box market for tablets," Shim said. The term white box is typically used in reference to the large market for PCs that are assembled by system integrators, or for unbranded PCs in general.

A search on the Web site Alibaba shows almost 4,000 different models of tablets using a wide variety of hardware. Systems come with chips from Freescale, Via, Intel, and others. The most common operating system is Android, with a smattering of Windows.

A typical listing shows a 9.7-inch tablet using an 800-MHz Freescale (formerly Motorola's chip division) iMX515 processor, with 512MB of system memory, 8GB of storage, and Android 2.2. The price for one unit is $199.99. Other listings require minimum orders such as "20 pieces" or "50 pieces," with some at prices well below $199.

But this market may collapse as quickly as it has appeared. "So can we expect white-box markets to be a recurring influence on the tablet market? The verdict is still out, but what we're hearing in China is that many of the white-box players are regretting their foray into the...market and are considering withdrawing their tablet PC business," Shim wrote in his blog.

He continued. "While they aggressively moved into the category, sales have been far below their expectations, taking several months to clear out inventory."

And this also underscores the challenge faced by tablets beyond the iPad and its relatively clearly defined user experience. "This would validate our theory that the tablet PC isn't just about the hardware," Shim wrote. "Software and user experience are very important to the usefulness of the device."