Drama surrounds tablet debut

About 18 months ago, a technology blogger got fed up with the industry and forged an alliance with a startup to make his dream computer. It almost worked.

The touch-screen “tablet” device will be available for pre-order today – from the startup. The blogger is out of the picture, back to producing posts rather than PCs.

But this is Michael Arrington, the often caustic frontman of the TechCrunch blog, and he’s determined not to let the story end there. He filed suit Thursday in federal court, saying the $500 JooJoo tablet is the fruit of his CrunchPad project.

For its part, startup Fusion Garage says Arrington’s contribution was minimal and that he didn’t manage to fulfill his commitments to the project. Tired of waiting for him to come through, the startup went ahead on its own.

The story begins in July 2008, when Arrington, one of Silicon Valley’s best-connected bloggers, posted a manifesto on TechCrunch.

“I’m tired of waiting – I want a dead simple and dirt cheap touch screen Web tablet to surf the Web,” wrote Arrington, calling for collaborators to step forward.

The post caught the attention of Chandrasekar Rathakrishnan, the young founder of Fusion Garage, which had been working for a few months on software that might power such a tablet. Like Arrington, Rathakrishnan envisioned a system that was based on a Web browser rather than a desktop operating system such as Windows. That would allow the tablet to start up quickly and would keep hardware requirements – and thus costs – down.

In September 2008, Rathakrishnan tracked Arrington down. Arrington agreed that Fusion Garage’s software might solve part of his tablet puzzle, and said he’d want to acquire Fusion Garage. Arrington said they settled on Fusion Garage owning 35 percent of a joint CrunchPad venture.

“I thought that was exciting. Here we had the guy who had a blog with a lot of reach, suggesting we’re something exciting,” said Rathakrishnan, now 29 years old. “I know how hard building hardware is, how much money you need for that. Having Arrington by our side (would) help us get there faster.”

Between September 2008 and February 2009, the new partners worked on a prototype designed by CrunchPad’s small team and a circle of consultants, running Fusion Garage’s software.

From here, the stories diverge and the partnership of two scrappy entrepreneurs sours.

In late November, the tablet computer was almost ready to make its debut when the project dramatically imploded. It’s impossible to say now what, exactly, went down between the two sides.

Rathakrishnan gave a live news conference by Web video Monday to introduce the JooJoo.

Since then, he’s taken the device on a whirlwind tour to show it off to gadget bloggers and technology journalists. The 12.1-inch tablet-style computer boots up into a screen of shortcuts to popular Web services including Facebook and Twitter, boasts a 5-hour battery life and faithfully plays back high-definition video.

The device is reminiscent of a giant iPod Touch – something Apple Inc. itself is rumored to be working on.

The drama has cast a pall over what Rathakrishnan had hoped would be a successful launch. But the relationship with the blog, particularly now that it’s turned into a high-tech divorce case, has generated far more buzz than Fusion Garage could have hoped for had it tried to build and launch such a gadget on its own.