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One-On-One With The Makers Of The Only Authorized MacBook Tablet

Andreas Haas, CEO of Axiotron, tells InformationWeek how the company turns the dowdy MacBook into its sexy Modbook Mac tablet, and why its not afraid of competition from a rumored Apple-made Mac tablet.

Axiotron's Modbook is a modified MacBook running Mac OS X that has had its screen and keyboard severed and replaced with the tablet screen.

If you live all day in Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or some other visual Mac app, Axiotron has its eye on you. The company makes the long-awaited Modbook Mac tablet, designed for designers, illustrators, and other visually creative professionals.

"It's for people who draw, scribble, and paint," said Axiotron CEO Andreas Haas. We sat down with Haas for a one-on-one interview recently.

The Modbook, priced starting at $2,290, was announced at Macworld 2007, a little more than a year ago, and finally started shipping Dec. 31.

Axiotron built the unit in cooperation with Apple. The Modbook is manufactured by the same companies that make Macs. Axiotron ships the manufacturers the pen displays, the manufacturers rip the displays and keyboards out of standard MacBooks, and then add the Axiotron display. The manufacturers keep the notebook displays and keyboards and use them to repair defective MacBooks -- displays and keyboards are the most common points of failure for notebook computers, Haas said.

Apple is reportedly developing its own tablet computer, but Axiotron isn't afraid of the competition, Haas said. The Apple tablet will basically be a bigger version of the iPhone or iPod Touch -- a consumer device with a 7-inch to 10-inch display, running a cut-down version of Mac OS X with little or no third-party application support, with an interface that's lacking in fine control, in part because it'll be controlled using the user's finger. "Finger painting is fun -- when you're four," Haas said.

In contrast, the Modbook is a precision device for professionals, a full-fledged Mac running Mac OS X that can run any application that runs on the Mac -- including Boot Camp, which makes the Modbook a Windows tablet. Input is controlled using a custom stylus, capable of detecting 512 degrees of pressure to control the thickness of the line being drawn. The stylus has two buttons on a rocker on the barrel, and the digitizer in the pen display is based on technology from Wacom, makers of pen tablets preferred by artists and graphic designers, Haas said.

"At every turn we went for the best solution instead of the cheapest," Haas said. "I'm not going to be selling to the same people who are buying an iPhone."

Apple isn't expected to come out with a competitive device for the Modbook, probably because the market is too small. Gartner estimated that just 1.4% of the portable PCs sold in 2006 were tablets, and that figure is likely to be similar today. That's bigger than the market for the Newton when Apple shut it down in 1998, said Haas, who was the product manager for the Newton at that time. On the other hand, the market size for tablets is good for a company like Axiotron.

But if the Modbook is a professional device, why did Axiotron use the consumer MacBook, rather than the more powerful MacBook Pro, as its foundation? Axiotron made that decision because the MacBook has a longer life cycle. Axiotron knew its product would require years to come to market, and it needed to base it on a product that would be available from the initial idea to well after the Modbook shipped. If Axiotron based the Modbook on models of the MacBook Pro, the company ran the risk that the models would be discontinued before or soon after the Modbook shipped, Haas said.

The Modbook uses a 2-GHz Intel Core 2 processor, with up to 4-GB RAM and up to 320-GB hard disk, with an additional 250-GB hard disk optional. It weighs 5.2 pounds.

Axiotron provides an onscreen keyboard with customizable shortcut buttons, with shortcuts preconfigured for common applications -- the only application Axiotron adds to the notebook. It uses Apple's built-in Inkwell handwriting recognition software, and is working with Vision Objects to license its superior MyScript handwriting recognition software.

The display is made with chemical-strengthened glass, which makes it more transparent than the display used in Windows tablets, Haas said. Transparency is important -- the more opaque displays require brighter backlighting to be visible, which requires more power, which diminishes battery life and increases heat production. The glass is acid-etched to give it "a nice scratchy paper feel" when the stylus is used on it, Haas said.

The El Segundo, Calif., company was founded in 2005 by a group of American, German, and Icelandic engineers. Haas said it plans an IPO in about a month.

And he hinted at an upcoming announcement in midyear. "In six to eight months, look for us to make life harder for the Windows tablet manufacturers," he said, declining to comment further.