- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 27, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Google unveiled its attempt to catch up to Apple and Amazon in the growing market for tablet computers. It also provided a titillating glimpse at its vision of a digital future through the mind-boggling lens of Internet-connected glasses.

The debut of a long-anticipated tablet computer bearing Google’s brand and equipped with its latest operating software kicked off an annual conference for about 6,000 computer programmers.

Although the tablet drew plenty of applause, the biggest crowd-pleasing moment came near the end of a nearly two-hour performance Wednesday when Google conjured a scene worthy of a “Mission Impossible” movie.

After Google co-founder Sergey Brin trotted on stage during the middle of a presentation, he cut away to a live video feed showing a group of skydivers the company hired to jump out of a blimp hovering about 7,000 feet above downtown San Francisco.

The skydivers were wearing a pair of Internet-connected glasses. That allowed the audience inside to see what the skydivers were seeing as they parachuted on to the roof of the building where the conference was being held.

The glasses are still a work in progress, although Google gave U.S. programmers attending the conference a chance to order a $1,500 prototype that they can start experimenting with early next year.

The Google-branded tablet, called the Nexus 7, will start shipping next month in a direct challenge to Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle Fire. The tablet also could appeal to consumers looking for a less expensive, less sophisticated alternative to Apple Inc.’s iPad.

The Nexus 7 is designed specifically for Google Play, an online store that sells movies, music, books, apps and other content. That mirrors Amazon’s strategy with the Kindle Fire, although Amazon’s strength in online retailing has seeded its store with a more extensive selection than Google Play. Amazon declined comment.

The size and price of the Nexus 7 also matches the Kindle Fire. Both have 7-inch screens and sell for $199. The Nexus 7 is slightly lighter at about 0.75 pound, compared with the Kindle Fire’s 0.9 pound.

By contrast, the iPad’s screen measures nearly 10 inches diagonally and weighs 1.44 pounds. Apple sells its latest models for $499 and up, though an older version is available for $399.

Customers can start ordering the Nexus 7 through Google on Wednesday, initially in the U.S., Canada and Australia. The device won’t ship until mid-July.

Google’s announcement that it’s putting its brand on a tablet comes a week after Microsoft Corp. did the same thing. Both moves risk alienating Google’s and Microsoft’s hardware partners. Those companies, in turn, could be less inclined to work closely with Google and Microsoft.

The Nexus 7’s price looks like a relative bargain, given that it boasts more features than the Kindle, including a front-facing camera with 1.2 megapixels. The Kindle is believed to be a roughly break-even product for Amazon at $199. Samsung Electronics Co. sells a tablet similar to Google’s for $250.

Andrew Rassweiler, an analyst with IHS iSuppli, said he suspects Google will be selling the Nexus 7 at a loss.

Google has previously put its own brand on a flagship line of “Nexus” smartphones. But that market is more mature than the tablet market, and there was less risk of Google alienating partners, particularly because it didn’t price the phones lower than the norm.

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