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(Reuters) – Chipmaker Freescale Semiconductor Inc is staking its claim on the tablet computer market, an emerging product category that will generate plenty of interest in 2010.

Although next-generation tablet PCs are scarcely evident on the market, the technology world is abuzz about their potential, as Apple Inc is expected to unveil its offering in 2010.

Freescale’s announcement comes ahead of this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where rival chipmakers are expected to show off new so-called smartbooks, which aim to bridge the gap between laptops and smartphones.

Privately held Freescale unveiled its reference design for a 7-inch, touchscreen tablet running on the company’s low-power ARM-based processor and priced at less than $200.

The company said such a device will be able to run either Google Inc’s Android mobile software or Linux, with Wi-Fi and 3G capability.

Although Freescale declined to name any potential vendors for its tablet design, it said devices could hit retail shelves as soon as this summer. The company expects to show prototypes at CES.

Freescale makes chips for a variety of products, including the automotive market. Its application processor is used in Inc’s Kindle.

Henri Richard, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Freescale, called a smartbook tablet 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.

Qualcomm Inc and Nvidia Corp are also expected to unveil smartbooks based on their chips at CES.

The devices will seek to break Intel Corp’s stranglehold on stripped-down, low-cost PCs. Intel’s Atom processor dominates the fast-growing netbook market.

Austin, Texas-based Freescale was spun off from Motorola Inc in 2004. The company was taken private in a $17.6 billion leveraged buyout in 2006. Sales in 2008 totaled $5.2 billion.

(Reporting by Gabriel Madway; Editing by Andre Grenon and Jan Paschal)