By Jin Hyun-joo
Korea saw all the buzz over Apple's tablet PC iPad, with media giving prominent coverage to its introduction and the new device becoming one of the top search words on major search engines.
The impending market debut of the new gadget comes on the heels of the success of the iPhone, which recorded 260,000 unit sales in just two months from its launch in Korea and brought a sweeping change in the local mobile industry.
In Korea, the WiFi-only iPad is expected to be rolled out in March to coincide with its global launch, and a WiFi+3G model is expected to be introduced after negotiations with local mobile carriers.
However, market watchers here doubt the iPad will be able to reshape the local market as the iPhone did. They said the iPad may grab only a niche market in Korea.
The new device is unlikely to pose a significant challenge to laptops, especially mini-laptops, although it could have a negative impact on local e-book firms and portable media player makers, they said.
"The iPhone should not be compared to the iPad. A handset is a necessity," S.R Kwon, an analyst at Hana Daetoo Securities, told The Korea Herald.
He added that it is easy to carry the iPhone in a pocket unlike the iPad, which features a 9.7-inch touchscreen.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs said the new device is in between smartphones and laptops, but many analysts and consumers here see them as portable media players like the iPod Touch.
"The iPad appears to be a swelled-up version of the iPod Touch. ... It is expected to become a niche market," Kwon said.
Lim Myung-mook, a university student, also said, "The iPad functions look similar to the ones of the iPod Touch, but the iPad is bigger than the iPod Touch. I prefer the iPod Touch because it is easier to carry."
"I would rather buy netbooks than the iPad," said Lim, who recently bought the iPod Touch.
Korean PC makers, which dominate the local market, do not appear to be vigorously tapping into the tablet PC market.
Samsung, the top PC maker in Korea, said the company has no plan to launch tablet PCs this year. "We are watching market developments," a Samsung spokesperson said.
Samsung, the world's No. 2 handset maker, also said it expects the iPad would be unlikely to have a major impact on the handset market, although it is likely to cause a "transition in the PC industry to a certain extent," a Samsung executive said Friday.
"We see that (a tablet PC) more as an entertainment device than a communications device. There could be a lot of data-sharing, but in terms of the voice, I think that we need to see more as to how it would evolve," Robert Yi, Samsung's head of investor relations, said at an earnings conference call Friday.
LG said it plans to release a tablet PC this year, but declined to comment on the markets where it will be rolled out.
Market watchers say it is hard to predict whether or not the iPad will succeed as uncertainty remains over content for the multi-purpose device.
"What is important is not the device itself, but things that one can do with the device," Kwon Sang-jun, an analyst at IDC Korea, told The Korea Herald.
At this point, it is hard to say whether it will take off or not. ... Content will determine its success," he said.
It is uncertain whether the iPad, which doubles as an electronic book reader, will be able to succeed in Korea because of the lack of e-book content, especially bestsellers. The local e-book market is in its infancy, despite a slew of rollouts of e-book readers by iRiver, Samsung and other companies since last year.
However, the iPad could potentially pose a threat to e-book vendors and portable media player makers here, analysts said.
"The launch of the iPod MP3 player in Korea several years ago led to chain bankruptcies of small and mid-sized MP3 makers here," Kwon of Hana Daetoo Securities said.
Optimists expected that local publishers would eventually cooperate with device makers and distributors to supply their e-books to create new income sources.
"Apple is expected to proceed with negotiations with Korean publishers," Park Jong-dae, an analyst at Hi Investment & Securities, told The Korea Herald.
"Book publishers are expected to gain ground as the launch of the iPad is expected to fuel competition among device makers and distributors," he said.
The iPad looks more attractive than standalone e-book readers with their multimedia features that allow users to enjoy video, music and photos, and surf the Web.
Little threat to netbooks?
Market watchers said the new device is unlikely to significantly dent sales of netbooks.
"It is more of an entertainment device. I'm not sure whether smartphone or laptop users will be willing to spend money on the new product," an industry official said, on condition of anonymity.
Experts questioned whether the tablet computer will be able to replace mini-laptops, arguing that it lacks key PC functions.
"The iPad is not an excellent device in terms of computing. ... I don't think the it will be competition for netbooks," Kwon of IDC said.
Even some Apple fans say they do not see the significant benefits of the new product.
"I have the Macbook, iMac and iPhone. The iPad has merits, but I can do things that the iPad does with other Apple devices. Even though when it will be launched in Korea, I will not buy it," said Park Se-young, a 33-year-old computer programmer in Seoul.
"I cannot hold it with one hand in a bus. I may be able to use the computer while sitting on a sofa in home," he said.