BERLIN — When I made plans to travel to Berlin to help judge the Best of the Blogs awards for Deutsche Welle, I figured it would be a nice idea to throw a MediaShift party. Then I found out that the new WePad tablet computer was being produced by a Berlin-based company, Neofonie. So it made sense to see one during my visit. And then when I bought an Apple iPad to review and deliver to design strategist Alexander Baumgardt in Berlin, it made even more sense to make the party into a special in-person comparison between the WePad and the iPad.

But there were some bumps along the way. Neofonie had planned to release the WePad in April, but then held a press conference in Berlin in which the WePad required the use of a mouse instead of a touch-screen interface. Production had been delayed and final units weren’t due until July or August. The delays made some in the tech press believe the WePad might be headed to the same fate as the CrunchPad — delayed and never to be seen. Despite the problems, the CEO of Neofonie, Helmut Hoffer von Ankershoffen, said he would come to the party himself and show us a WePad.

What we knew about the WePad so far was that it had the potential to be everything the iPad wasn’t: The WePad was larger, was based on the more open Android operating system, had USB ports, a SIM slot, Flash support, multi-tasking, and even a webcam built in. (TechCrunch Europe ran a handy side-by-side comparison of WePad and iPad specs.) But without actually seeing one in action, it’s hard to compare the two.

Seeing Is Believing?

I already reviewed the iPad along with my 7-year-old son Julian, so I was anxious to see if the WePad could measure up. I headed to our little party a private flat in the vibrant Mitte neighborhood in Berlin, and sure enough, the Neofonie folks showed up with a WePad. However, the touch-screen was still not working, just as in the demo at the press conference on April 12, so we had to use a mouse attached to the USB port. (Neofonie CEO Helmut Hoffer von Ankershoffen promised to have WePads with working touch-screens by April 24, so I may get the chance to try them out later in my visit.)

But seeing the WePad side by side in real life with the iPad was fascinating. The first thing I noticed was the WePad’s size, as it’s two inches wider vertically than the iPad. I had already been amazed by the size of the iPad, but this was even bigger. Plus, just seeing those inputs along the side of the WePad made it feel like a more serious computing device. A USB port. An HDMI-out plug-in. A slot for adding SIM cards. What looked like an infrared connection. It felt bigger, the touch-screen keyboard looked more comfortable and bigger than the iPad’s, and it felt solid.

But the broken touch-screen wasn’t the only problem with the WePad. After having it on for just a couple hours, the battery died and needed to be recharged. Von Ankershoffen told us the battery life should be six hours, which is less than the iPad’s 10-hour battery life. Plus, von Ankershoffen told me my son would likely still prefer the iPad even when the WePad comes out.

“The WePad just won’t run games as fast,” he said. “Even though the chip is faster in the WePad, the graphics engine is faster on the iPad.”

He noted that Intel must be very angry at Apple for not going with Intel chips on the iPad. The WePad does use Intel chips.

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Glaser with the iPad, WePad and iChalk

When we were comparing the iPad and WePad, someone jokingly added a real chalkboard slate next to them as a point of analog comparison. We then proceeded to note the advantage of the “iChalk” board for having features such as instant swipe erase and the ability to write on both sides.

Publishers to Subsidize WePads

Probably the biggest factor in favor of the WePad is the possibility that print publishers and cell carriers might subsidize the device to the point where it doesn’t cost anything to buy. Von Ankershoffen said that it might come to “a negative price point” because of those subsidies, but that doesn’t mean consumers won’t be paying for it. They’ll need to buy a bundle of content from large print publishers such as Gruner + Jahr, who are partnering with Neofonie, which has done tech back-end work for many publishers over the years. Plus, cell carriers would subsidize the WePad in exchange for long-term contracts.

One other eye-opening possibility: Von Ankershoffen said that publishers that subsidized WePads would also get a cut from all app sales that come from that WePad. That’s right, if a customer buys an app from a competing publisher on the WePad, the subsidizing publisher gets a cut of that too.

The idea is that print publishers could effectively move their readers onto a (free) digital device to get the same content at a lower price. The ultimate goal is to charge for the content, unlike web publishers that have essentially posted their content online for free and tried to rely on advertising revenues. The pitch here would be something like this: “You can continue to get your favorite newspaper and magazine content but won’t have to deal with print publications stacking up, and you get this great device for reading books, surfing the Net, and playing games, too. Join the digital world, and keep your favorite publishers in business!”

Von Ankershoffen was nice enough to bring along his own iPad that day, and even showed off some German newspaper content on it. Why? Neofonie is not just producing the WePad and helping publishers port content onto it. The company has built a platform called WeMagazine that helps publishers produce digital versions of their publications that will run on WePads, iPads and even the web. Von Ankershoffen mentioned that Neofonie could charge 300,000 Euros to publishers for this service, and hinted that this is the main source of income, rather than the WePad hardware itself.

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Von Ankershoffen (on right) demos the WePad

Von Ankershoffen displayed an early prototype of an app called Stern “e-Magazine” on his laptop, but didn’t want anyone to post photos of that yet. While it had a simple, colorful interface, it suffered from the same problem as many iPad magazine apps: No comments on stories, no outside links, and no social media integration (though there was a smart-search pop-up that linked to relevant web sites within the app). That upset some of the techies and designers in the room, who quickly took von Ankershoffen to task over that. But Neofonie was just the platform maker; publishers have the choice of putting in those features or not.

And despite many of the pointed questions and comments about the WePad apps (and iPad apps) being more closed, the small assembled audience generally was rooting for Neofonie and the WePad. Here was a small German company taking on giant Apple and trying to help print publishers survive in the digital era. While Von Ankershoffen jokingly said he was out for revenge on Google (Neofonie also has a search engine called WeFind), he had to admit that the WePad did indeed rely on Google’s Android operating system.

Conclusion

It’s still early in the game to make any kind of final conclusion on who might prevail in the battle of new tablet devices. Apple has the edge over most competitors by having a finished product, a thriving App Store ecosystem, a simple interface, marvelous design and loads of potential for future news apps and interactivity.

But the WePad has something the iPad doesn’t have — big deals in the works with European print publishers that could price it far below the iPad. While the intial prices touted for the WePad were 449 Euros for the WiFi device and 569 Euros for a 3G unit, those might become irrelevant if a publisher such as Stern decides to give them away in a package for content. If the WePad’s interface and usability ends up as simple as the iPad’s, then it has the potential to become a replacement device for print subscribers ready to make the jump.

Unfortunately, people who love print publications most likely would want to use the simple iPad rather than the more customizable, extensible WePad. And on the same count, the more tech-savvy crowd that would prefer the WePad probably doesn’t care about getting print publications bundled on their device. And those people would hate those Neofonie-created apps that offered up less interactivity than the web. In either case, Neofonie wins because its fate as a company is tied to its platform for publishers and not to any particular device.

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What do you think? Would you consider the WePad if and when it comes to your country? Do you prefer the iPad or other tablets? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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