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.

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.