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From Joke to Giant: How Tablets Became Titans



Seems like only yesterday I was warding off ignorant attacks against the viability of tablet computers. “Users want keyboards,” they said. “Tablets have already failed,” they claimed. Fast forward to today and not only do people want them, but vendors are scrambling to meet demand.

On an earnings call, Todd Bradley, head of Personal Systems Group at HP, admitted (without naming names) that notebook sales probably took a hit from tablet sales. In that same call, it was confirmed that HP will be fighting back with a Windows-based slate (the mythic HP Slate) and one running WebOS (the Hurricane or PalmPad). Best Buy is set to support them and others on the retail end. Forrester claims consumers are “hungry” for tablets, and not just the iPad. Tablets are charging to the forefront, and it’s happening as many of us claimed it could.

Apple made tablets popular. Like it or not, Apple opened the door to tablet-mania, just like many long-time Tablet PC enthusiasts said they could. Admittedly, until the iPad came along, the vision was that of a tablet running Mac OS X, much like the Axiotron Modbook. However, the general consensus was that they’d tailor the software and back it with the power of their marketing machine, which they did with the iPad, and that would trigger a cascading effect to get everyone else into the game, which also happened.

The software shrank. Regardless of whatever else they did, the critical move Apple made to make the iPad a success was to shrink the software. While previous tablets, such as the Tablet PC and UMPC, used the core Windows OS with additional functionality layered upon it, expanding the software as the hardware shrank, Apple stripped down Mac OS X to make their tablet operating system (which was retooled for the iPhone). Following that example, Microsoft has chosen to promote Windows Embedded Compact 7 as their tablet OS, and vendors are looking toward Android for their tablets, which is preparing for real tablet support with version 3.0. Operating systems will eventually re-expand (developers expect iOS and Mac OS X to merge one day, as will Android and Chrome), but for now, slimmed down hardware deserves slimmed down software.

Battery life increased. Ask any mobile computing enthusiast what improvements they want and greater battery life usually tops the list. Certainly that was on the top of my list when I got into Tablet PCs, prompting me to start with an Electrovaya Scribbler SC500 with its 140Whr, 12-hour battery. Unfortunately, while processors got faster and software got hungrier, battery technology couldn’t keep up without getting pricier. Continuing down that road was futile. Smaller operating systems running on ARM-based processors solved that problem and now even a 25Whr battery can provide 12 hours of runtime.

And this brings us to today. With Best Buy aiming to serve up a big bunch of tablets this holiday season, the “Year of the Tablet” could be upon us. We can thank Apple for kicking things off, but while I and others thought they could make tablets popular, we didn’t claim they’d only make their tablet popular. There’s a big opportunity here, and it’s great that so many are taking advantage of it. Yes, in many ways, we’re taking a step back with the functionality compared to Windows-based Tablet PCs, but sometimes you need to take one step back to make a big leap forward. Get a tablet in everyone’s hands today and that leads to better, more powerful tablets tomorrow.



  1. GTaylor

    08/21/2010 at 1:15 pm

    Quite right on all points as I see things. Nothing in this world seems to move along smoothly or as we think it should.
    Using my Motion M1400 out in public lately and it has been the folks over 45 and below 25 who get it. “You mean I don’t have to sit at it like I’m praying to it?!” No, but some prayer is required. “It uses real programs!?” Yep! “Ya mean I don’t hafta have a data plan? Cool!”
    Real tablets, with out a mandatory keyboard, might take off quick or fly below the radar, who knows…

  2. Tim

    08/21/2010 at 1:55 pm

    However much I try to like tablets larger than 5 inches- and even at that size, it’s stretching it, they’re just not for me. If I’m going to lug around a device that large, it might as well have a physical keyboard. So far, the 4.3 inch touchscreen phones, the Droid X and EVO, are great- easy to move around the screen with one hand, and the screen keyboard is quite with two hands without having to lay it on a surface.

  3. aftermath

    08/21/2010 at 3:33 pm

    I pretend that when you say “tablet” you often, but not always, mean “touchscreen slate”. Otherwise, your analysis is nonsensical. Given that assumption, your analysis becomes at least practicable but is hardly practical:

    “Apple made tablets popular.” Nope. Apple made the iPhone popular and then the iPad popular. Whether or not you think the iPad is a tablet (I don’t), it’s silly to call tablets popular. The iPad is popular. That’s it. Even if people think they care about tablets or think that other people think they care about tablets, look around you. Nobody ACTUALLY cares if it’s not an iPad. Long before the iPad came out and upon its earliest coverage, most people (Apple people and others) were calling the iPad a “big iPhone” and not a “tablet”. I think that remains true. The iPad has very-iPhone hardware, a very-iPhone OS, and very-iPhone software (or “apps”). Think of any tablet that existed before the iPad; isn’t the iPad more like the iPhone than the tablet that you just thought of? Just pretend for a second that the iPad doesn’t even exist. Are tablets still popular? NO! And they’ve been around for a very long time both in all kinds of hardware/software/form factor combinations. In fact, the “tablet” of today is little more than an overgrown PDA, and those died. The iPad is popular because it is very much like the iPhone, which is popular. Whereas a lot of people believe (mistakenly in my opinion) that the iPad “proves” that there is demand for touchscreen slates running operating systems derived from mobile phones, this just doesn’t seem true. I believe that many people *think* they want a touchscreen slate, but that’s just because they haven’t used one and had to live with its shortcomings compared to comparable devices. I don’t really think that most people actually want one. I don’t really think that people want a bigger version of an Android phone. I don’t really think that people want a Windows device without a keyboard. Even though Windows is just fine on a tablet or slate, it’s better with a keyboard. Even if Android is just fine on a phone, you can do more on a larger device if you give it a better operating system. Tech people do a remarkably bad job of business analysis and don’t understand that Apple has successfully built up a brand that people are likely to purchase from because of the brand. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s a true thing. It’s like BMW. Most people buy BMWs because “it’s a BMW”. They even by the BAD ONES (yes, there are) for the same reason. I’m not trying to imply that the iPad is bad. I’m just trying to imply a difference between what people buy from a single “boutique brand” and what the whole marketplace wants. If BMW suddenly sold thousands of BMW cement trucks to consumers, does that mean that there is huge consumer demand for cement trucks? Maybe, but it’s more likely that people just want the BMW ones because that’s they think other people want. It’s called a fad.

    “The software shrank.” and “Battery life increased.” I combined your other points because you just teased apart “the great myth” into two pieces. Even bifurcated, it’s still not true. Sit down and make a list of devices with screens 7 inches or larger that get over 8 hours of battery life. I PROMISE YOU that the most prominent type of device, in fact a majority of your list, will be x86 based notebooks/netbooks running Windows 7. People somehow think that Intel hardware and Microsoft operating systems are so hefty that they can’t offer impressive mobile endurance. It’s a lie. They already do, and they do it with FAR MORE PERFORMANCE then their competitors (I confess this as a former ARM developer and a current Linux evangelist). People also overlook the fact that despite business being the bread-and-butter for Microsoft and Intel, netbooks, which have outsold the iPad by orders of magnitude, have received a slow adoption rate from business. This rate is increasing, and if Microsoft can position “tablets” as a business device from the beginning (most people who use ACTUAL tablets already do use them as business devices), then they could score a major hit. As I’ve said other places, I believe that the most popular tablet or touchscreen slate will eventually be the hardware analog to the current crop of long-life netbooks, assuming that this computing fad continues (I think that touchscreen slates are the first “bell bottom pants” moment in consumer computing). They will be based on an x86 processor and run Windows 7. 10 hours of battery life is already there without ANY tweaking needed. The point that you missed is that the recent history of smartphones has revealed that most people want capacitive touchscreens. Most people are not developers and don’t understand that there is a HUGE difference between developing a GUI for capacitive touch, resistive touch, and an active digitizer. You pick one, and once your software is done it won’t work as well on the others. Fortunately, Windows 7 works BEST with an active digitizer, and capacitive touch is more similar to that than is resistive touch. For this reason, I think that capacitive touch Windows 7 slates at least have a chance of offering the pleasant experience that people have come to expect from touch devices. Inclusion of active digitizers will be a bonus. A keyboard will make the device legitimately useful. I’ve been anti-convertible tablet PCs for a very long time because they make for pretty trashy laptops and slates, but I think that manufacturers who are coming out with “keyboard docks” probably have a “big win” on their hands in the Windows market. This seems to be the future of the “tablet”: capacitive touch, netbook-like hardware, a full-featured OS, and a keyboard dock.

    • Sumocat

      08/21/2010 at 5:10 pm

      “I pretend that when you say “tablet” you often, but not always, mean “touchscreen slate”.” — Ever since Microsoft introduced touchscreen slate UMPCs as a subset of Tablet PCs and dropped the active digitizer requirement for running Windows XP Tablet PC edition, I’ve counted touchscreen slates as tablets. I suppose that seems outdated, but I’m old school like that.

  4. dstrauss

    08/21/2010 at 9:06 pm

    aftermath: Where are these marvelous 10 hour Windows tablets?

  5. JohnCz

    08/22/2010 at 10:57 am

    Consumers will eventually see these tablets/slates as notebook replacements. As you indicated, some competitors will attempt to reintroduce a full fledge OS over time. I think Microsoft should leverage their advantage here and optimize Windows instead of going to some lite OS. Microsoft is said to be doing just that but I don’t know if that means a new Windows sku, service pack or addon. I certainly don’t think Microsoft can wait for Windows 8 launch in late 2012. Somewhat related, I think they could really different their offering by leveraged their mobile/dock patent which essentially adds CPU/GPU to the dock. So that tablet/slate device is able to scale up to full desktop power. I sort of like the MSI WindPad 100 w/Dock setup…just wish it had more computing power in desktop mode.

  6. dstrauss

    08/23/2010 at 6:58 am

    Did you happen to notice that MSI never displays the WinPad “on edge” is all those promotional shots? My guess is 0.8″+ just like the HP TC1100 – not real flattering compared to iPad…BUT…JohnCz is really on to something. MS should produce a complet customized package for slate use…a whole new sku of Win 7 Tablet version WITH tru MS Office Lite (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, and OneNote)that cuts all the heavy design (desktop publishing) type features and goes for basic productivity and file support.

    Back in the late 80’s-early 90’s WordPerfect put to together a “laptop” verion of WordPerfect 4.2 and their basic spreadsheet, etc. all with a handy shell that ran in DOS to give you Sidekick type functionality in the calendar, contacts, and utilities along with a fully WordPerfect compatible wordprocessor. This would be the ticket for the current slates of 2010. Someday, IF battery technlogy can catch up in that form factor, then let feature creep set in. Remember, the battery is a huge part of the iPad, together with custom processor and battery sipping mini-applets, finally stretched us to all day computing.

  7. GTaylor

    08/23/2010 at 7:50 am

    JohnCz and dstrauss, There is one big road block in computing, 2. multi-form factor customers, and 3. street level users of productivity software primarily Microsoftware.
    That roadblock is any program that is complicated enough to cover any feature useful at the Redmond campus might just be too big for many devices and too complicated for a substantial part of the customer base to learn without dedicated professional instruction.
    If operating systems and productivity programs were scalable and registered online for the user to access as needed then the smallest and simplest version could be installed on a given device, features added at will, and various versions installed on different platforms.

  8. dstrauss

    08/23/2010 at 8:19 am

    GTaylor – in other words, we get a canon whether or not we are swatting flies or shooting tanks…

    • GTaylor

      08/23/2010 at 10:35 am

      And so we suffer flies or hernias wherever we go.
      I am not saying that programs or platforms should be stripped down. Your point is clear, the current tool box is not versatile enough for the job. Marketer’s interest is the actual weight in the box.

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