The Year of the Failed Tablet(s)

29 April 2010

There is no doubt that the iPad can be a success. Apple’s great execution on a mobile platform is accomplished by having a complete ecosystem approach: device, applications and content services. Today’s news brings the possible cancelation of two devices that gathered some attention from the blogsphere – Courier and the HP Slate. While the cancellation news may be rumor for either of the devices, it’s probably a good idea for both.

Running Windows on a “slate” as a consumer device can be less than ideal. Late in 2004, I was part of a group that worked on taking Microsoft’s Tablet PC concept (which was geared to knowledge workers) and adapting it as a lower cost solution for general consumers. To help make this a reality, Project Origami created a new user interface that would provide easy access to programs thus making it easy for users to launch applications without having to deal with the “base” of Windows. For those of you familiar with mobile devices, this is much the same case as HTC’s Sense UI that sits on top of Windows Mobile. In both cases it provides a simplified and cleaner user experience for 80% of the experience. Once you get outside that 80% you have to deal with the operating system with all of its warts. Origami not only had this issue, but also suffered from the lack of developers willing to produce applications specifically tailored for the device. Had Microsoft been able to excite developers in the same way that Apple had then maybe Microsoft would have been willing to commit more resources and further develop the experience. Instead, the Tablet PC bits have faded into obscurity having had only minor refinements in Vista and Windows 7. HP’s Slate is basically a re-introduction of what was started in Project Origami. Intel’s processors have gotten better, Windows 7 added capacitive touch capabilities, plus the Tablet PC legacy adds the missing capabilities for text input and control. And from the videos that have surfaced about the device, there is a shell (HP TouchSmart) on top of Windows to create a friendly environment. HP also has partners with several content providers such as Rhapsody and Pandora so in theory, it has everything it needs. However just like Origami, the shell only provides so much insulation from the core OS; plus unless there’s a large developer program that has been hidden from the public view, then no one has signed up to create additional compelling experiences. At the end of the day, if HP is cancelling the project, it is probably a good thing for them in the short-term – however it is disappointing since the ability to have a portable device that can run standard PC software still can be useful.

Microsoft’s Courier is a different case. From my analysis of the situation, the biggest concern was cost. Having dual screens with digitizers and other interface controls in a well-designed folding enclosure is going to have some significant costs. Even if all the parts are commodity parts, there are still some more costs than the iPad. In addition, both the operating system and interaction model are new. Microsoft already has to drum up development support for Window Phone 7 and adding yet another platform for developers is a substantial ask since both are brand new. I’m willing to believe that Courier was shelved for costs and as an attempt to keep the focus on getting developers onto the new phone platform.

There’s a lot to like in both the Slate and Courier, but both companies clearly want homerun products out of the gate rather than experimenting in the market place. Apple is the dominant player currently in this market, but there is still plenty of room for competitors who are can deliver a full experience at the right price.

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