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Google Seen Joining Tablet Fray Wednesday

By Benjamin Pimentel SAN FRANCISCO--Google Inc. is gathering its developers on Wednesday, and there's speculation that the company will do what rival Microsoft Corp. did just a week ago: unveil its own tablet. The Google (GOOG) I/O developer conference in San Francisco is expected to focus on its key products, including Android, the popular operating system for mobile devices and the Chrome browser. One analyst said the search giant may also talk about cloud-platform services to businesses, similar to those offered by Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN). But buzz is growing around an expected rollout of a Google-branded tablet to challenge Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) iPad. The tablet-introduction rumors underscore the growing importance of the mobile market, with its untapped pool of online-advertising revenue. A tablet, according to BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis, is going to be the main attraction of the conference. He quipped that the product could go by such names as "Googlet" or "Gpad." "Whatever it's called, bring it on and make YouTube be my video-content source," Gillis said. "A Jelly Bean Android tablet, available to buy, that costs me $199 -- that's what we're looking for." Jelly Bean is the name of the newest version of Android, the software widely used on smartphones and tablets manufactured by companies such as Samsung and Asus. Google could come out with its own product, perhaps manufactured by Asus, at a price of roughly $200, making it competitive against the higher-priced iPad. Last week, Microsoft (MSFT), which has struggled to make its presence felt in the tablet sector, took the wraps off its Surface device based on the Windows 8 operating system. Gillis speculated that Microsoft's surprise announcement was as a way to pre-empt Google's rollout and not look like a laggard. "Why did they have to do it that week?" the analyst asked. But unlike Microsoft, Gillis argued, Google will probably make its product available immediately, and build on a formidable presence in the mobile market -- including a growing community of app developers and its popular YouTube video channel. "We're talking about ecosystems. Tablets you use for video a lot more." The battle for a bigger share of the mobile-advertising market has intensified with the rise of social-media companies, led by Facebook Inc. (FB) On Tuesday, Morgan Stanley analyst Scott Devitt resumed coverage of Google with an equal-weight rating. While Google's valuation remains attractive, he said, there are concerns that "profit contributions from mobile ads may continue below desktop levels," due to pricing pressures in the mobile-ad market. Devitt also pointed out that "competition from social destinations may intensify." IDC's Karsten Weide offered muted expectations of a Google tablet, given the fairly downbeat reviews of Android-based devices. Weide said the speculated product will "mostly be interesting with regard to how close they get to the iPad in terms of the user experience, not how much better it is." "Personally, I am wondering if it is even going to get close to the Kindle Fire," the analyst added, referring to Amazon's tablet product. "The Samsung devices have been disappointing in that regard, so Android has to prove something." For Weide, Microsoft's Surface is still "a distant third" in the tablet race, and is expected to "primarily make inroads in the enterprise because it can run the Office suite, so for now it's not that much of a threat in the consumer space." Susquehanna's Herman Leung also expected mobile to be "a big theme" at the Google conference, although he speculated the company may also focus on the possibility of offering cloud-based services to businesses. Cloud computing refers to the way businesses access computing power via a network, instead of relying on their own data centers. Amazon.com has been able to make money out of letting other companies use its vast network of servers and data-storage systems. "It's a pretty big market," Leung said. "Amazon has already dug up the trenches for a lot of these." BGC's Gillis said that if Google does go that route, "it's going to be a big business that has low margins" and that it could be a step that the company is considering, but not without much debate on the implications. "Do you want to open up your core competencies to everyone else, or do you want to keep it in-house?" he asked. "I don't know the answer. But I would love to listen to that debate." -Write to Benjamin Pimentel at AskNewswires@dowjones.com

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