Ultra-portable computers designed for surfing the internet and watching movies on the move could be one of the biggest success stories at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, say analysts.
The devices, known as tablet computers, have screens of between 7in and 10in in size, and unlike traditional laptops, they use an on-screen "virtual" keyboard, like that used by Apple's iPhone, rather than a physical keyboard.
Apple is expected to launch its own tablet computer, rumoured to be called the iSlate, later this month, and rival computer makers are thought to be keen to unveil their designs ahead of any Apple press conference.
A US company, Freescale, has shown off a prototype device that could be used by other electronics manufacturers to create cutting-edge tablet computers that will cost less than $200. The tablet, which has a 7in touch-screen, turns on quickly and connects instantly to the internet via Wi-Fi or the mobile phone network, and provides a full day of battery life.
Dozens of other manufacturers will also use the Consumer Electronics Show to showcase their tablet devices. Notion Ink, an Indian manufacturer, will unveil its tablet computer, which runs Google's Android operating system and features an energy-saving 10in scratch-proof touch-screen, and will allow users to watch high-definition video on the move, and to surf the internet and send emails.
Dell might also launch an Android-based tablet device, while gadget fans will be hoping that Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, uses his keynote speech on Wednesday evening to share more details about the Courier, a dual-screen tablet computer and ebook reader that Microsoft is rumoured to be working on.
Henri Richard, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Freescale, said tablet computers were the "missing link" between PCs and smartphones.
"The PC has been stale in terms of its ability to innovate. Smartphones have been making progress, but they have limitations," he said.
Analysts at DisplaySearch expect the tablet computer market to be worth $3.5bn by the end of the year, a significant figure for an emerging device category. "We're talking about a brand-new market," said John Jacobs, a senior analyst with DisplaySearch.
The tablet revolution is being driven by the growing ubiquity of wireless internet connections, and consumers' desire to surf the internet and watch videos on devices that are bigger than a smart phone, but smaller than a conventional laptop.
Glen Burchers, director of consumer product marketing for Freescale, said his company's tablet computer was aimed at people aged between 12 and 30, who wanted a web-friendly device with a bigger screen than a smart phone to surf sites such as Facebook and YouTube.
"The tablet is the newest category of mobile device, and we believe it has the potential to be the fastest-growing," he said. "Everyone who uses the internet finds value there."