Thoughts on Broken Tablet Dreams

Yesterday afternoon and evening brought news that rocked many readers here at GBM. Reports (still unconfirmed) that HP is canceling the slate and that Microsoft is dropping the Courier project (confirmed) have been greeted with some anguish as well as some shoulder shrugs. There have even been a few raspberries. Apple fan boys (and others) are saying that the iPad killed both projects, others point the finger at HP’s acquisition of Palm and its WebOS. Of course, Windows 7 is getting its share of the blame as well because it is largely viewed as too cumbersome of an OS to run on these small mobile devices.

Who really knows what the equation was/is that led to these kinds of decisions. I know I don’t, but there are some pointers that have been dropped along the way during the Year of the Slate that offer a logical path to speculate upon.

They include:

  • Battery life. Let’s face it, the way Win 7 uses the display it drains battery and hints abound that those working on Tablets aren’t happy with what they are seeing. Anything that doesn’t come in around 8 hours plus is going to be perceived as inferior to the iPad.
  • UI. The Courier had a different approach to User Interface. Word was that HP’s slate was going to layer on a UI shell over Windows 7 trying to hide the OS. That didn’t work with UMPCs and wouldn’t be successful this time out either. Especially when compared to other lighter touches from other options.
  • Cost. Windows 7 costs more all the way around and that affects the ultimate market price. Apple also defined the Tablet price with the iPad. Don’t think that this didn’t matter.
  • The anything but Windows approach. When Netbooks burst on the scene and disrupted the market there were many compelling story lines. The same was true of MIDs, although that market fizzled. Netbooks came out of the shoot with Linux variants as the OS. Customers jumped, OEMs were happy. Customers rebelled. Microsoft was happy and continued to sell XP and rolled out Win 7. Google teased with both Chrome OS and Android. The writing was on the wall. OEMs were willing to go any direction they could find if an effective OS solution could be found, but a paradox existed. Main stream customers wanted familiarity because they viewed Netbooks as just a smaller computer. For a short time Microsoft was in the catbird seat again, but the Tablet/Slate platform demanded something new.
  • Microsoft’s Tablet history. Microsoft screwed the pooch with Tablets. It had the vision, it lacked the courage to push the platform. Microsoft and it’s partner OEMs failed to capitalize on the vision because they missed how special Tablets could be in the consumer market. They also had woefully misguided marketing. Microsoft’s snakebit reaction became a dead weight hanging around its neck. Show me a Tablet/Slate story anywhere that doesn’t say at some point that Microsoft failed at Tablets and I’ll show you a teenager who didn’t start writing about tech until oh, say 2005.
  • Advertising, Advertising, Advertising. If you haven’t figured it out by now, all the talk about consumption devices can be simply translated to “it’s a platform to sell advertising.” Microsoft made a big corporate shift here and creating Tablet/Slate devices for people to actually be productive on fell by the wayside.
  • Microsoft’s partner approach. I don’t think anyone believed that Microsoft itself was going to make the Courier. They were going to run their well entrenched partner playbook. There’s some speculation that HP may have been the partner. Microsoft’s partner approach relies on rigors of collaboration that Apple doesn’t have to deal with. (I’m thinking Android based Tablets will have some of these same partner related issues as well.) If the iPhone/iPad proved anything, having control of both the hardware and software is the way to go. Partnering makes a difficult job even more so when you can’t control all aspects of the device.
  • Delays, delays, delays. We started sensing that delays were going to happen almost before bloggers got home from CES2010.
  • Bill Gates’ retirement. Tablets lost a champion in Redmond. Does anybody but me think that the body language of Steve Ballmer’s sad sack showing of the HP Slate wasn’t telling?

The 800 Pound Gorilla
There’s no question that the iPad and its initial success had impact here. It was fairly obvious that many of those who talked about Tablet/Slates at CES2010 were playing wait and see, hoping Apple would define the market and then not deliver, or at least leave them an opening. The iPad may not be “magical and revolutionary” but for the moment it it looks like it is doing very well. As Steve Jobs started ramping up his anti-Flash campaign and manufacturers started trumpeting Flash as a differentiator, you knew there was trouble ahead. That almost became a comedy act. In fact it has.

HP and Palm
Apple’s initial success with the iPad probably also contributed to HP’s decision to acquire Palm. HP had the cash and the background to go for it and the opening was there, thanks to Palm’s missteps. Who knows if this will work, but it has potential written all over it. Logically, HP, if the reports of it abandoning the Slate are true, is probably right to focus its energy on WebOS as a future Tablet platform. It would control both the hardware and the OS.

Let’s face it. Creating Tablets/Slates isn’t easy. The jury is still out on whether or not they will become successful, regardless of Apple’s early success with the iPad. Will consumers figure out how to make use of them in their lives in numbers big enough to matter in the long run? Again, I think that verdict is far from certain.

All of that said, there are still some folks willing to give Tablets/Slates a go. Joanna Stern pointed out yesterday that MSI has Android and Windows based Tablets targeted for this summer. jkkmobile brings some new details on the Asian and European release of the Hanvon Tablets. The WePad is still trying to make noise. There is still energy moving forward. As I said back in the heady days during and following CES2010 when the Year of the Tablet/Slate was christened, 2011 would be a more realistic year to hang that label on. Then again, we aren’t halfway through 2010 yet, and the story looks like it is being rewritten quicker than anybody, myself included, imagined.

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Caveat: I’ve said several times in this post and I’ll say it again. We still don’t have confirmation on HP’s plans to scuttle the Slate.

Comments

  1. everbrave says

    Well said Warner; I completely agree. Microsoft had its chance and Apple has done it again! Let’s see what devices based on WebOS, Android and Linux (e.g. WePad) can offer. Currently, I give WePad with Linux the lead because it is, currently, the best compromise between light-resources demand and suitability as a general purpose device-OS combination.

  2. Charles says

    Anybody complaining about Win7 performance on these new devices really needs to check Win7 running on the TC1100 before going much further. Even on Pre-Dothan models with 1 GB of RAM it runs IE, Office and Rhapsody very well (I’m doing that now, even).

    As for battery life, you can easily get 3+ hours on a new, 3rd party, $40 battery. Make the battery swappable and people can get as much life as they need.

    Even with all this, the Slate as defined in the leaked specs would have done well enough to get people being producting with taking notes and creating/editing documentents using Ink, while entertaining themeselves with a tablet that really is light enough to walk around with and hold for a long period of time. Plus, it would have done all this for a price that people wouldn’t feel to bad about taking a bit of a gamble on (at least compared to how much the original TC1100’s sold for).

    I really hope that the rumors wind up being unfounded, because I don’t think I can keep the TC1100’s in my life running more than another couple of years, and I don’t like considering my digital future without something in this form factor in it.

    • osiris says

      The only people that want to dick around with swapping batteries are you old tablet enthuastists who have yet to get with the times. You cannot market a device “3hrs battery life BUT optional unlimited extra batteries”…

  3. Charles says

    I agree with most everything except the success of the iPad being somehow a hindrance. Apple products are rarely going to keep competition away. In fact they usually do just the opposite. Generally speaking Apple products are niche, except for the iPod. The more “computer like” an Apple product is the more niche it becomes. This is why the iPhone is seeing flat sales and Android has quickly caught up to it. The general public doesn’t want to pay the Apple tax or play in their walled gardens and therefore there is always a great market created when Apple makes something cool and popular simply because there is a large segment of the populous that wont or can’t buy an Apple product.

    Personally I think there are a lot of positives to a win7 tablet if they could get the battery life up to 8 hours or so. Speed wasn’t that bad, you get all your apps (real applications not these kiddy apps or repackage web apps that people are calling apps) that you are used to, and it’s much more open. With that said, for any die-hard that wants a Win7 tablet there are a few floating around that can be found.

  4. Medic says

    What is it that microsoft does with windows that still makes nr. 7 take so much juice out of the battery, while apple and android do not? I thought all blogs and articles online were showing that windows 7 was one of the most bugfree and energy efficient OS’s around. I certainly have great experiences with it. No crashes certainly, which beats the endless energy consumption of restarts and startups.

    It is a great pity that the microsoft tablet, ink and courier endeavour is starting to bleed. It certainly shows great potential for a new and perhaps better functionality with current technology. It would certainly be an iphone and ipad killer. Although capacative touch has shown its potential, in daily life much is still achieved with the simple paper and pen. I do not understand why microsoft does nog recognize this and see that we could easily go for digital inking, which saves a lot of wasted paper and keeps things neat and tidy in one easy place. I think the courier should be restarted. They’ve come to far to dismiss it now.

  5. acerbic says

    Battery life… battery life… SQUAAWK! Battery life!

    That’s it: I’m selling my own iTile (patent pending) tablet which is a floor tile with a AA battery ducttaped to it. It’s thin, light, stylish and the battery lasts at least several years. Apparently nobody would care that it can’t do anything useful. The base model is $449 and the advanced one with a fine porcelain finish is $549. Start shoveling the money this way, zombies…

  6. osiris says

    Nice that you mention advertising I think that marketing has had a large play in this however to suggest Windows 7 is responsible for the poor battery performance is only half – or even less than half the story. WindowsXp, windows vista, windows 7….is it the software or is it the fact that these x86/x64 processors just arent conducive to 8hrs+ battery life?

    A full MacOSX wouldnt get 8hrs+ battery life on the equivalent hardware either.

  7. osiris says

    TC1100, 2710p, 1610, DellXT…everyone of these has only achieved 2.5-3.5hrs (maybe 4 stretching the 2710p) max battery life. They have each ran a variety of Windows XP, Vista, 7.

    I dont doubt software contributes but to completely ignore the hardware and lay the blame at Win7 for the crap battery life of tablets is the sort of ignorance id expect on a mac fansite.

    Some people say, well why are you so against a full OS tablet even if its just for a minority niche market?

    One answer is, im not, I can see uses for tablets already available, but what I am against is a failed HP Slate which is aiming for mass consumer appeal.

    And the answer for that is because tablets have been nothing but the realm of a niche market and where has it gotten you? Little innovation, no real advertising, no real champion product, 99% of the population who still dont know what the fudge one is, high prices, crap battery life, delays, etc etc.

    The future success of Windows based tablets (mobile or full OS version) rely on hitting mass consumer appeal, failure to do this will basically leave you guys in the dark ages with your candles.

    • Charles says

      The mass consumer appeal is the infinite notebook, sketchbook, watercolor pad that also serves as a sofa- lounging, stall-surfing, wandering-around-the-house-telling-the-kids-to-stop-jumping-on-the-furniture media consumption device.

      The biggest innovation we’ve needed in this space is how to get the price point down to where someone who is not a true believer would be willing to risk it.

      The anecdotal evidence I have for this is the fact that I have to keep buying new tablets as family members keep deciding they cannot live without mine. This leads me to believe if people have the chance to experiment with the productivity, creativity, and fun this form factor unlocks, this class of device would go gangbusters.

      My hope is that HP figures out (and advertises) that while the iPad is great for consuming, a slate with an active digitizer is tops for producing. If they can do this, I think that windows based tablets have a pretty good prognosis.

  8. RandySpangler says

    Well written piece Warner. Several things come to mind:

    1. What do people want to do with the WinSlate when they get it? Apple had this nailed with the iPhone platform. Is the WinSlate an answer looking for a question?

    2. Where are the lightweight apps for the Windows model? What is MS going to do with the WinPhone 7/Zune operating system? Apple has laptops based on Mac OS, but notice that they don’t have slates with the same. Prolly not an accident.

    3. Read my blog piece about this very issue. Please leave comments on my blog if you think I am all wet about this (or if you think I am right).

    It is time for Microsoft do a SWOT analysis and realize that they are not destined to rule EVERYTHING. If they come to this realization and grease the skids to allowing an application platform to give access to what they are truly good at (business operating systems), then we all can win and get an open tablet that does what WE want.

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