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When Slates Make Sense



When Rob posted that I was going to be doing some blogging here he described me as:

Craig is wickedly smart and passionate about Tablet. He is a die-hard slate user and is not ashamed to admit it!

I can’t deny it – I love tablet and I also just happen to be a user for whom the slate form factor works really well.  And I am not alone.

In the course of my work I sometimes work with organisation to help them understand their mobile requirements and apply the best technology for the situation to "mobilize" their business.

I have found that it is extremely rare for one device to meet the needs of all, or even most, users in an organisation of any size.  However it is not at all uncommon for me to encounter sizable organisations who have a standard laptop model, which is changed every 12-18 months.  This is hardly the most optimal application of technology, but it is easy.

For the organisations that I work with I have found that there are typically multiple communities of users within a company that have wildly different requirements of their mobile devices.  From a user point of view the ideal situation would be that all the communities were communities of one and every user got whatever device they thought was best suited to their role.  Naturally that would be absolute chaos and would be completely unsupportable.  From the IT operations point of view the ideal situation is that every has the same device configured in exactly the same way.  In my view this can be as ineffective as the former is unmanageable.

The trick is to find a happy medium where by you group uses with similar needs into a community and match the devices to the communities, without ending up with too many devices to support.  It is always a balancing act and you never please everyone but the result – ultimately – is a more efficient application or technology and happier, more productive users.

In the course of doing this I have found that there is frequently a community of users for whom slates work very well.  In fact there are three situations where slates make sense.  

Moving and Walking

When I interviewed Scott Eckert from Motion Computing recently he described their primary market as:

…People who need to use a computer while standing and walking.

That pretty succinctly describes the group and you only have to look at Motion Computing’s target verticals – health care and field automation – to find examples of users who fit the profile.  In addition I’ve seen slates deployed to people conducting surveys or field research and Navy boarding parties where the computer usage was truly mobile.

Return to Base Workers

The next group is the one that I would put myself in.  I call them Return to Base workers (R2B).

R2Bs are typified by having two primary work modes that they spend 70-80% of there time in.  One is at a primary work area, where they will have a docking station, nice big screen, keyboard and mouse.  This is where they do the portion of their job that requires the computing equivalent of heavy lifting.

Their other work mode is mobile and sees them away from there desk, frequently working offline.  While they are mobile they may be using a computer while moving and walking, they may be using pen-centric applications, they may be reading much more than writing or it may be a combination of those things.

As a consultant this is very much how I work.

For me, the time I am at my desk and docked is when I write long documents and emails, work on big spread sheet, draw Visio diagrams run virtual machines and the like.  Much of my mobile time is spent in internal and external meetings.  My computer usage while mobile is mostly note taking, reading or firing off short emails. 

Other roles I have encountered that fit the R2B model have been insurance assessors, aviation accident investigators, real estate agents, project managers and executives.


The final niche I have seen where the slate really shines is in situations where people need to use a computer that is mounted in a vehicle.  In this situation the added bulk of a convertible in slate mode just gets in the way.  This is also an area where touch screens and applications designed with a fat finger optimised user interface really add value.  Often in these situations the application comes first and is modified to suit a particular device or form factor.  This is an interesting situation and I really think we will begin to see more devices and applications specifically targeting this space.

While this is certainly a niche space I think it is an important one and it is also one that is likely to benefit from the multi-touch enhancements coming in Windows 7.

If you get the chance…

If ever you have the chance to try using a slate for a while I would recommend you take it.  Having a slate forces you to explore and find where it does and does not work.  Try it in the situation where you think it will work and then stretch yourself a bit. 

My first ever tablet was a pure slate and I am convinced that I am a better tablet user for the experience.  Even though I would prefer a slate my work provided machine is a Lenovo X60 convertible, because I work for one of those companies that does not offer enough choices :)  However I use it a lot in slate mode.  Every day on the train to and from work, every meeting, document reviewing, research and more. 

The exceptions are – as always – the challenges

Going slate can be a liberating experience but it can also be painful.  For example, there are times when I will be away for an extended period and I need a keyboard solution.  Like most good slate users I have built up a collection of accessories and I’ve gotten pretty good at packing what I need for a given engagement.  Some things I think are critical are a good portable keyboard and mouse.  In both cases I favour bluetooth, but if you spend a lot of time on airplanes then corded may be the way to go.

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