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What Slate Makers Need To Do To Succeed

At CES2010 the “Year of the Tablet” was ushered right as the new year was beginning. There were promises of Tablet/Slates promised in just about every flavor you could imagine. All of this with this news that Apple was going to release its iPad lurking just around the corner.

Just like baseball’s spring training when hope springs eternal for every team (well, excluding the Chicago Cubs) there was a lot of promise in the air after all those CES announcements. But then it became clear, at least to me, that all those who were talking Tablet/Slates were willing to sit back and let Apple score a bunch of runs early in a market that it can be argued is still yet to be defined. It was a calculated gamble and in the long run, it still may pay off. Apple did announce as scheduled and did release the iPad. I don’t think anyone, including Apple thought they would meet with such early sales success (sales are supposedly over one million at this point).

The bottom line is that early success of the iPad along with the wait and see attitude (along with some other changes in the landscape like HP buying Palm) have put many hopeful Tablet/Slate makers into a tizzy looking for how to move forward. The WePad WeTab is one of the first competitors out of the gate, along with the JooJoo. Both are meeting with some resistance, the JooJoo with more than I would think any new product could possibly bear and still hope to be successful.

In reality the “Year of the Tablet,” as predicted, quickly got pushed forward a year to 2011 with many promises now targeting the end of 2010 and 2011 for possibly bringing devices to market. We’ll still have to wait and see how that plays out.

In the meantime, these are some things that I think these Tablet/Slate hopefuls need to aim for if they hope to score any runs in the early innings of this long game.

Battery life. Apple set the new standard at 10 hours. Even the 3G models are getting great battery life. Anything under 7 hours doesn’t stand a chance in the long game in my view.

Multi-Touch UI. It’s not perfect on the iPad and sometimes it’s confusing given the lack of standards, but it is quick, it is enjoyable, and it is fun. If new Tablet/Slates can’t be as fluid as the iPad then they will be playing catch up.

OS. We certainly don’t want everyone creating their own OS for their own device. That said, Android looks to be the choice for many of the products we’re hearing about. However, we’re hearing that Android 1.6 is the choice for some of these devices. While that may work, there will be a perception problem that it is inferior given the hoopla and focus that will surround future Android OS’s.  In some ways offering a device with Android 1.6 just sounds defeatist to me.

Flash/USB/Camera/Yada Yada. Yes these will be seen as differentiators but in the long run I don’t think they are really going to matter. Until we see Flash working on any mobile device, Apple will win that war that it is waging with Adobe. Having USB ports for moving data on and off the devices will be a key for some, but I’d rather see resources put into figuring out how to wirelessly sync info back and forth on these devices the way you can with Android phones. Apple’s single biggest flaw for the iPad OS is that you have to plug it into a computer and use iTunes to sync. I think that’s tied to DRM agreements more than anything else, but it’s still there in any case, and quite honestly it just feels like its past its prime. Cameras may or may not prove to be important. For me they are not on these devices. You might think otherwise.

Ecosystem and Apps. Face it, Apple has a murder’s row here. Between retail stores where customers can actually pick up and play with the devices (as opposed to Big Boxes where I’m guessing any future Tablet/Slates will lead to a new patent on how to lock down display devices), and the App Store, it will be tough for anyone to compete with Apple. The rush of “We’re creating an App Store” as thankfully calmed down a bit, but I imagine it will heat up again. The Android Marketplace offers promise, but I think the fragmentation issues between Android OS versions may be a hindrance. The fact that some Android installs can’t, by nature of the license, access the Marketplace is going to be a confusing factor as well.

Shift in Marketing Strategy. Face it, even the version 1 iPad can be classed somewhat has Beta Hardware, and if we actually see any of these devices that are being talked about and promised they will as well. In my view, Apple’s magical mystery marketing machine had has much to do with the initial success of iPad sales than anything else. But none of the other players are capable of fielding any sort effort like that. In my opinion, they should through out the playbook and put devices in as many hands as they can when they feel like they have something ready to go. Give the things away if they need to.

You may have noticed, Tableteers, that I haven’t mentioned Inking. I just don’t see it in the near future as something that is a priority. As sad as that statement is for me to make, there’s no marketing reasons beyond our loud and disappointed niche for the makers of the next generation Tablet/Slate makers to include Digital Inking at the moment. Perhaps there’s room for this in the long game.

Sadly, I have to admit that I see more strikeouts than I see home runs ahead. That said, if manufacturers take the long view I think there’s still a chance that we could see a competitive market in the future. But as fast as the tech sector is moving these days, “wait till next year” could quickly become a hollow slogan if we don’t see some early victories.

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24 Comments

  1. Strodtbeck

    05/18/2010 at 10:04 am

    good article. . .
    I think for many on the PC side (not Apple) the wait and see approach is a good idea. Apple has a following that will buy a certain number of their products no matter what, that isn’t true for most other companies. If Apple does make the slate popular then others can ride that wave of marketing and undercut Apple and provide devices with more features, standard ports, etc, that a wider range of users will find attractive.

    Reply

  2. TabletTeacher

    05/18/2010 at 10:20 am

    Good Article Warner.
    Per Strodtbeck’s comment. The other vendors may have missed the boat in keeping up. While MS has been the founding father of tablets, they have not embraced the marketing aspect of getting their foot in the door.

    Apple has done that. Nme one tablet device that sold 1 million in one year. I hoped the UMPC formfactor woudl do this, but it never happened. Sure, Apple has a dedicated following. However, they have marketed well and gotten the device into people’s hands.

    The iPad is not perfect. Ports would be welcome and a bigger hard-drive. However, they have nailed the battery-life equation and have a plethora of applications.

    Don’t assume another vendor will undercut them. They are strong out of the gate, and who knows what iPad2 will bring. Either way, other vendors will always be “trying to catch up”.

    Reply

  3. TabletTeacher

    05/18/2010 at 10:22 am

    Edit…Name one MS Tablet that sold 1 Million in a month. People are looking for something new…and iPad seems to be it.

    The demise of the Courier and WIN7 Tablet speaks volumes over the obstacle MS OS now faces.

    Reply

  4. Shiloh

    05/18/2010 at 11:31 am

    I hope some good affordable Tablet PC’s [convertible and slates] come out. I have an older one and thinking about the upgrading to the TM2.
    If one of the companies could make a tablet pc with a passive and active digitizer similar in size to the mac air and decent specs I would buy it. Not sure if anyone else would though and that is what counts. Too much to ask for?

    Reply

  5. acerbic

    05/18/2010 at 11:36 am

    Re: “Anything under 7 hours doesn’t stand a chance in the long game in my view.”

    Battery life… battery life… SQUAAWKKK! BATTERY LIFE! I guess I’m the only one who would choose without hesitation 5 hours of using e.g. OneNote, Office, any full web browser or practically any productive/creative application ever written rather than 10 hours of iFart. Sigh…

    Reply

    • TateJ

      05/18/2010 at 2:15 pm

      I would choose 7 to 10 hours of battery life doing the 5 or 6 things I need to to vs 5 hours of being able to do everything a computer can do. AC outlets are not always available.

      Personally I don’t need to photoshop, autocad or edit videos while mobile. I need document editing, pda functions, websurfing, ebooks and time killers (games, video, pictures, etc). The iPad will work for me, but it doesn’t sound like its enough computer for your mobile needs.

      Reply

      • ChrisRS

        05/19/2010 at 8:02 am

        WOW! Two (2) poeple with two (2) sets of wnats/needs, and two (2) ideas on battery life.

        Could that mean that there are potential markets for two (2) versions of Tablets? One (1)with great battery life and reduced funtionality, one (1) with full functionality and less battery life. NO! That would be silly!

        Reply

  6. CBONE

    05/18/2010 at 12:23 pm

    acerbic,
    you’re on the trail of something here. I don’t think that 5 hours is enough for me. For the ipad, people use a real computer to get content (for the most part), use a real computer to figure out/find workarounds for software/functionality missing from the ipad, & then use the ipad for consumption.
    If a Microsoft/Linux tablet/slate didn’t have to enable the user to do everything both the ipad & the real computer can do, it could get by with less demanding hardware. The goal should be Office 2010 or Elements level Photoshop. Strip everything out of the OS & retool it to run those software goals blazing fast.

    Reply

    • acerbic

      05/18/2010 at 12:49 pm

      I thought tablets too were still going to be rechargeable, right? I would let it have the demanding hardware, make a deal with Toshiba to use the SCIB batteries, miniaturize the charger so it can be a plug normally sitting in a corner of the gadget with a one foot cord and voila: if the battery gets low, you can plug it in the nearest outlet for a few minutes and be good to go for hours again.

      Maybe that’s all still too impossible high tech to put together, or maybe all executive types at HP, Dell, Toshiba etc. are totally hypnotized by some 10 million Apple fanbois constantly screaming that the whole world wants nothing more than iTunes and iFart on a tablet any more.

      Reply

  7. Ken Hinckley

    05/18/2010 at 2:55 pm

    Any touch-only slate that goes up against the iPad is just going to be a cockroach on Apple’s windscreen.

    Devices with BOTH pen and touch are the future. Mark my words. We don’t have to argue whether touch is better than the pen. We don’t have to choose one or the other. The technolgies are coming rapidly to make this a reality.

    Until the market gets this, Apple will continue eating their lunch in this space. Why do exactly what Apple is doing, only too late and not as well, and without the ecosystem to leverage? It makes no sense.

    Reply

    • Brett Gilbertson

      05/18/2010 at 10:49 pm

      Nicely said Ken. I’m sorry Warner, but I think Ken’s right. Android, Win 7 whatever, the compelling advantage of an alternative product to the iPad is going to be something that Steve Jobs has sworn off forever – the pen.

      Take a look at how many people take notes on paper around you every day… It’s a niche just waiting to explode into a market. I am confronted by this every day!

      Reply

  8. TabletTeacher

    05/18/2010 at 3:18 pm

    Acerbic,
    Apparently you have some Freudian-based issues with Apple and Mac. Right now they are taking up the market space many waited for MS to do with Tablets, UMPC, etc.

    Period. They are doing a great job.

    Reply

    • acerbic

      05/18/2010 at 3:58 pm

      I had absolutely no issues with your cult until Jobs and you fanbois started the current obsessed crusade to try to deny nonbelievers any choice of smartphones or tablets, using bogus lawsuits, whining, boasting and howling. If anything needs a freudian explanation, it’s your behavior.

      Reply

      • TabletTeacher

        05/18/2010 at 6:57 pm

        Fanboys. Bogus Lawsuits.

        Gee, MS hasn’t had any of those right? How about all of the money paid out because of MS OS and Office. Many organizations and educational institutions gained $1000s based on those lawsuits.

        Now, call it what you will, but Apple is getting the “market thing” right where MS could not. Face it. No fanboys at all. I have two PC’s and two Macs. Stability-wise, I like the Mac. Win 7 is good, much better than horror-Vista.

        If they were bad computers, no one would buy Mac. Until something better comes along, you will be happy bashing anything that is coming close to being ideal for many…perfect NO…but closer than what we’ve seen thus far from anyone else.

        Advantage — iPad.
        Wait and See—MS Based Tablet–UMPC—Dell 5????

        Reply

        • CBONE

          05/18/2010 at 8:00 pm

          “If they were bad computers, no one would buy Mac.”

          That’s not even close to being true. Apple has such a pervasive marketing machine and cult status that it would take a ridiculous event to stop them now.

          Right now, people would buy Apple if 1 in 3 products were going to randomly burnout and melt into a pool of slag.

          Reply

          • CBONE

            05/19/2010 at 6:44 am

            Clarification for the sensitive:

            “If it were bad food, no one would buy McDonald’s.”
            “If they were bad shoes, no one would buy Nike.”
            “If they were bad energy drinks, no one would buy Gatorade.”

            All false, all with pervasive marketing campaigns and cult status. What would it take to get people to really stop buying them? Probably the government stepping in over a health risk. Aside from that, I don’t know what.
            Apple isn’t alone in that area.

      • Gavin Miller

        05/19/2010 at 12:34 am

        Acerbic, rants like the one you just did are just as bad as any of the ‘fanboys’ you refer to, just from the other side of the fence. Thankfully GBM mostly avoids ‘Gizmodo’ style flame wars and it’d be great to see your views without the immature name calling and ‘iFart’ which really, wasn’t funny the first time you used it. CBONE, I’m looking at you too!

        Ridiculous generalisations have no place in good discussion. FWIW, while I love, and am passionate about tech, I really don’t understand why people get so heated about these things!

        Reply

        • CBONE

          05/19/2010 at 6:33 am

          Zuh? Who’s getting heated and why are you staring at me?

          Reply

        • acerbic

          05/19/2010 at 11:39 am

          Here, just to help you understand: ever since it became apparent how lame and crippled the iFad is, Apple cultists have been defendiong their faith by relentlessly attacking any potential competition to it, mainly the originally planned HP Slate, screaming “Noooo!!! You must not do that! It won’t work! Nobody wants it! It won’t sell! Battery life, SQUAAAWKK! Battery life!”

          …and because most of what passes for tech “journalists” these days were also doing exactly that, it looks more and more like they accomplished their mission and managed to bully HP into changing the Slate into a webOS toy only. Therefore anybody who wanted a real computer in a compact, lightweight slate form factor has every right to be angry at Apple’s flying howler monkeys. Q.E.D.

          Reply

  9. Warner Crocker

    05/18/2010 at 5:13 pm

    Ken,

    cockroach on Apple’s windscreen is one of the most apt and hysterical analogies I have heard in some time. Thanks for making me laugh.

    I agree about touch and pen being the way to go. Always will. But sadly I think those of us who see that wisdom are in the minority.

    Reply

    • ChrisRS

      05/19/2010 at 8:28 am

      Whith the iPad defining the market, the obvious areas of competition are price and some even more magical feature.

      Beter UI? – Nope, Apple did a pretty good job and will improve it! Competitors will be playing catch-up.

      Apps? – Nope, Apple has too big a lead, even IF many of the apps are trivial.

      Full OS? – Nope, there is a market that is comfortable with consumption over creation. LogMeIN MAY be a production solution without a full OS.

      Pen/Ink? – Magic, this would be the differentiator. NOte taking – Great for meetings and students. This is the obvious lack on the iPad that can be used as a point of differention and reach a new market.

      My preference is still a full function, full OS, with pen/active digitizer. I don’t expect it to come to market. A limited funtion, reduced function OS, with pen/active digitizer seems more likey to come to market. If so, and if it is sucsessful, a powerfull full funtion followup is possible.

      Reply

    • Ken Hinckley

      05/20/2010 at 10:11 am

      Glad you appreciated the analogy, Warner. Truth be told I have been feeling more like a bug and less like a windscreen these days.

      Reply

  10. Nameless

    05/19/2010 at 10:26 am

    Reading through all the comments here and thinking about recent tablet trends, I’ve noticed something.

    The competition is too busy copying-and-pasting Apple’s approach as closely as they can.

    What they SHOULD be doing is finding out where Apple’s product fell short and capitalizing on that while not letting the rest of the product suffer.

    Some are doing this, but they’re only focusing on things like Flash and full desktop OSes with desktop apps. What I still don’t see is the alternative to pen and paper I’ve been looking for-especially since most of these new slates don’t have a Wacom pen digitizer at all. (All I ask for is something akin to a jailbroken iPad with a Wacom pen and apps to match, really.)

    I think that part of our irritation about the general abandonment of the pen/stylus is that as someone else put it in an excellent article, the stylus is seen as an apology for a bad UI. The problem I noticed, after looking at the Newton OS and especially the Courier concept videos, was that OSes with a pen/stylus UI were bad not because they had a stylus in the first place, but because they weren’t using it right. They likened it too much to a mouse to let you click on small things, and not enough to the writing/drawing/expression tool it is on paper.

    There could be another problem here-expression on technology today is about plain text. I’ve heard numerous complaints about illegible handwriting before, and how much slower it is to write vs. type. Nobody’s really thinking outside text. Think diagrams, sketches, or even equations/formulas that can’t be easily typed. Even if we are writing out text rather than typing it, we’re not limited to predefined fonts or anything-we can write it out exactly as we want to without having to find and install just the right font file, change the size, bold/italicize/underline/strikethrough, etc. Formatting would feel less clunky and more natural.

    Perhaps it’s doomed to forever be a niche, but I’m still waiting for the dream of a digital Moleskine of sorts, like what the Courier videos promised, to be realized. I still can’t really stand pen and paper, but I still expect the freedom of expression it has offered for generations-something that could be further expanded in today’s era of computers and the Internet, but has been limited due to old paradigms.

    Reply

    • gEEk

      05/19/2010 at 2:15 pm

      I fully agree. The way to compete with iPad is to have its simple app and consumption capabilities plus digital, searchable ink notes with a purpose built UI for less than $800 (with 3G connectivity). The Palm Pilot replaced the DayRunner and this new device would replace the Moleskine. It is the device that every professional needs and doesn’t yet realize it, unless they are Tablet geeks like us.

      I believe it is a matter of time before such a device is as common as smartphones. Unfortunately, I think Warner is right. It is going to take quite a while for this market to mature enough to realize our vision.

      I hope the reasons why Courier got cancelled leak out soon. I’m interested if it was about MS choosing to not compete in this market or if the hardware is not quite cheap enough to meet the required price point.

      Reply

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