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The Slate PC: Haven't We Been Down This Road Before?

With the success of Apple's iPad, the PC industry is going slate crazy. HP has two types of slate PCs on tap, one based on Windows 7 and one on WebOS. And Microsoft is going to carpet-bomb the market with different kinds of Windows, just to see what sticks. There's just one problem: Customers have already voted against Windows on slates. Why are we doing this again?

It's been a weird year. In early April, Apple started selling the iPad, which is basically an iPod touch with a much larger, 9.7-inch screen. The iPad isn't revolutionary in any way, but it's an Apple product, and endemic problems with the iPhone 4 notwithstanding, the public is in love with them. So much so that Apple is selling almost 1 million iPads a month now.

But Apple didn't need to even release the iPad for Microsoft and its PC maker partners to feel the heat. Back in January, when the iPad was still a rumor but widely expected anytime, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off an iPad-like device called the HP Slate. He referred to these types of devices as having "a new form factor," something that's almost as portable as a phone, but also as powerful as a PC. It is, in fact, just a PC, and it's running Windows 7. Or it will be if it ever ships.

Of course, we've been there before, haven't we? In 2002, Microsoft, in tandem with its PC maker partners--including HP, incidentally--released the first generation of underpowered but actually quite innovative Tablet PCs. There were two form factors at the time, the keyboard-less slate design that we're now calling "a new form factor" almost a decade later, and the convertible PC design, which looked like a laptop but featured a swiveling screen that allowed the device to also be used in slate mode.

Oddly enough, PC makers still sell convertible PC-type Tablet PCs today. Including, you guessed it, HP.


It's been a weird year. In April, less than a month after Apple's triumphant iPad launch, HP purchased ailing smart phone maker Palm. If you're not aware--and their sales suggest you aren't--Palm actually makes a thoroughly modern smart phone platform called WebOS, and a handful of smart phones that run on that platform.

There were a lot of rumors around HP's purchase of Palm. And there was some silence around the fate of the HP Slate, since many assumed that HP would drop Windows 7 and shoot for a later delivery of a WebOS-based version of the Slate instead.

Turns out they're doing both. The HP Slate will still ship with Windows 7 sometime later this year, but it will target the enterprise for some reason, and not the consumer market as was the case before. You almost get the idea they're doing it out of a nostalgic sense of tradition: HP is arguably Microsoft's biggest and oldest partner. Meanwhile, the company is also working on porting the smart phone-centric WebOS to slates as well, in effect doing with that platform what Apple did with its iPhone OS (now called iOS) to create the iPad.

This makes sense if the goal is to just ape Apple's strategy. But where WebOS falls flat, compared to iOS (iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad) is in ecosystem support: WebOS just doesn't have the kind of app market that Apple enjoys, and it has nothing in the way of a content market. So from what I can tell, HP is about to field not one loser, but two.

Microsoft's strategy, if anything, is even more convoluted. Obviously, the company intends to see its partners deliver a number of Windows 7-based slate PCs in the coming year. And there is reason to believe that Microsoft can duplicate its success in the netbook market with slates. Which is to come into a PC market that it originally was not part of and dominate it simply by showing up. Remember when Linux was a big deal on netbooks? No? That's OK, no one else does either.

But Microsoft has a number of other mobile initiatives in the works and the company's strategy, if we can call it that, appears to be to carpet bomb the market with different products and see what sticks. There are various embedded versions of Windows in the works, some based on Windows CE and some based on Windows 7. The company is allegedly working to bifurcate the slate "market"--yeah, it's a market now--into low-end devices running some embedded Windows and high-end devices that are, get this, PCs running Windows. Or what we used to just call Tablet PCs.

To be clear, Tablet PCs have never been successful. Microsoft has improved the underlying PC-based software dramatically since 2002, adding new features and functionality, including touch and multi-touch support, and the solution is mature and capable. But customers have never been interested, ever.

The reason the iPad has succeeded is two-fold. First, it's from Apple, and it doesn't have to make any sense because customers will just buy anything this company makes, allowing them to fix issues and fill in the functional gaps over time. Second, the iPad doesn't try to bring Apple's complicated Mac OS X system down to a simpler form factor; it instead uses a simpler smart phone OS. There is no handwriting or voice recognition on an iPad. You use your fingers. It's like finger painting instead of oil painting. Or "the dumbening," as I call it.

So Microsoft can put Windows on a slate, again. But it won't work this time either, because customer expectations have already changed (or lowered). What Microsoft needs to do is get over its desire for Windows Everywhere (tm) and do what Apple and HP are already doing: Port a simpler system, in this case Windows Phone, to slates.

And here's the kicker. Unlike WebOS or iOS, Windows Phone is already ideally suited for the bigger screens you'd get on a slate-type device. That's because it's designed to work with panoramic user interfaces, interfaces that require scrolling on a phone but could be presented in a single screen on a slate. It's an amazing bit of coincidence and synergy: Suddenly behind in a lucrative new market, Microsoft just happens to have the perfect response.

There's just one problem. Microsoft has said, publicly at least, that it has absolutely no plans to port Windows Phone to a slate. Instead, it will pursue its multi-headed, Windows-centric product strategy and try to cram the desktop Windows UI into devices that lack keyboards and pointing devices, and just see what happens.

Yep. It's been a weird year.

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