Why the last wave of tablets sank
Scott Ball and Mary Anne Gunn from Motion Computing Inc. dropped by the office Monday to preview some new ruggedized tablets. Motion's been in the tablet game for some time, selling entirely through the channel and into vertical niches like field service and health care. It gave me a chance to chat with somebody who was in the market during that last wave of tablets. You remember, around 2004? The ones that were launched with great fanfare and sold like something not at all resembling hotcakes?
Motion's sales have been consitent because the units are vertically targeted, very much purpose-built, unlike the all-thing-to-all-people failures of that era. Those were, for the most part, convertibles (though Fujitsu, I recall, did a slate with an absolutely gorgeous LCD. It was like looking into the eyes of someone you love. But I digress). They were bulky and the hinges didn't inspire confidence. That wave of tablets sank because, Ball believes, if people wanted a keyboard, they'd have bought a laptop.
I almost concur. Yes, the keyboards contributed to the bulk, and didn't do much for the ergonomics. But, more importantly, they used an operating system that tried to replicate the desktop environment — yes, I'm looking at you, Windows — which missed the point entirely.
Motion's machines run on Windows 7. The company's customers — remember, this is a very targeted offering — don't want to have to rewrite existing apps, want compatibility with their existing systems. And Windows 7 is a vast improvement over the OS of the day during the wave of failed tablets.
But it comes down to a fundamental issue that's at the core of the wild success of this generation of tablets. Apple Inc.'s Steve Jobs is a visionary not because he created a new form factor. He didn't. The iPad's wild popularity with consumers is largely due to the fact that its operating system treats it as a big phone, not a small computer.
(Rafael Ruffolo, naturally, disagrees. You can watch our debate here.)
The successful consumer tablets of this generation will be the ones that run on mobile operating systems — iOS, Android, BlackBerry OS and, if there's anything holy, webOS. They are built for on-the-fly interactivity. They are designed to make installing applications seamless. Consumers want that instant gratification, not a boot-up screen.
I didn't mention Windows Phone 7 in the last paragraph for a couple of reasons. First off, the Windows-based tablets being released now are running Windows 7, not Windows Phone 7. This is a huge missed opportunity. Microsoft may have been late to the mobile game — come on, you couldn't really take the various iterations of Windows Mobile seriously, could you? — but Windows Phone 7 is an eye-opening operating system, and would suit a tablet fabulously. Second, there's this emerging notion at Microsoft of One Operating System To Rule Them All, to run desktop, mobile and gaming environments. What works on a desktop, as we saw with the last generation of tablets, doesn't necessarily work on a tablet.
This comes to mind as Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion Ltd.'s fortunes are failing. Its share value is crumbling. Analysts are calling RIM a bargain, ripe for takeover — a company could offer a substantial premium on the share price and still pay a fraction of the multiple normally associated with this kind of deal. And one of the names that's been bruited as a possible buyer is Microsoft. That would be disastrous for RIM users, because transition away from BlackBerry OS would be inevitable.

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