About 10 years ago I was wandering Las Vegas doing the exact same thing many CES attendees are no doubt doing this week: looking at all the tablet devices and thinking, “nice.”
In my case it was Comdex, not CES, and the highlight of Bill Gates’ Sunday night keynote was the announcement of Windows Tablet PC edition (no idea what happened to that OS) which was supposed to usher in a whole slew of devices that reshaped the way users interacted with data. It felt promising: much in the way the desktop and then the notebook opened up all kinds of new opportunities for OEMs and use-case scenarios, tablets would combine the best of both worlds. It just turned out that most people were fine living in one of those two worlds.
To be fair, the tablets as we saw them at the time were primarily convertibles – their big trick was the way you could turn around the screen and fold it back down, hiding the keyboard. This overlooked the fact that no one really likes using a stylus and that even with all the enthusiasm around Journal, Microsoft’s handwriting recognition software (again, is anyone still using it?) didn’t seem to capture the comfortably scratchy feeling of putting pen to paper.
It’s possible time has finally caught up with the tablet PC concept (which now seems to be rechristened “slate” soas to overlook the underperformance of the last big marketing push). The iPhone has made touchscreens much more popular, and the design of such hardware can now accommodate tablet-like functionality without a huge tradeoff in weight and size. There are also a growing number of other devices – the Kindle is one of them – that is familiarizing users with an experience that transcends the idea of a computer as a portable office.
Although Steve Ballmer’s brief demonstration of an HP slate this week overshadowed everything else Microsoft announced at CES, some industry watchers seemed surprised that there wasn’t talk of a more aggressive strategy to fend off Apple. It doesn’t surprise me. Microsoft’s success is predicted on its ability to get its software onto as many devices as possible. In this case, the slate is just another place to run Windows 7. That the company managed to move ahead of Apple is a short-lived victory. Neither company will live or die by a form factor.
IT departments are likely to slot slates into that same “maybe” category of devices like netbooks and other in-betweens that are broadening the selection of departmental end user computing tools. A tablet doesn’t create a radical new way of working digitally; it’s a small nuance in the traditional personal computing interface that will be influenced more by personal preference than business strategy. The last time Microsoft was excited about tablets the main case studies seemed to be schools, a few health-care users or other information workers who wanted something fancier than a pad to carry around. In other words, a niche.
Of course, niches are all for the good. They offer choice, address specific needs and can probably adapt to whatever image or configuration is placed on it. No one’s going to expect any profound list of commandments from the IT department around the use of these devices. After all, we’re talking about slates here, not tablets.