We often forget that the idea of a personal computer is an extremely modern one, considering how ingrained in our lives they have become. Indeed the first personal computers appeared around 40 years ago and it took decades for them to become a fixture as common as the television in modern households. The last 2 decades have seen an explosion in the adoption rate of personal computers growing at double digit rates nearly every year. Still even though today’s personal computers are leaps and bounds above their predecessors in terms of functionality they still share the common keyboard, monitor and mouse configuration that’s been present for decades despite many attempts to reinvent them.
There does however seem to be a market for curated computing devices that, whilst lacking the power of their bigger brethren, are capable of performing a subset of their tasks. I first began to notice this trend way back when I was still working in retail as many customer’s requirements for a PC rarely amounted to more than “email, web surfing and writing a few documents”. Even back then (2000~2006) even the most rudimentary of the PC line I had to sell would cover this off quite aptly and more often than not I’d send them home with the cheapest PC available, leaving the computing beasts to gather dust in the corner. To me it seemed that unless you were doing photo/video editing or gaming you could buy a PC that would last the better part of 5 years before having to think about upgrading, and even then only because it would be so cheap to do so.
The trend towards such devices began about 4 years ago with the creation of the netbook class of personal computing devices. Whilst still retaining much of the functionality of their ancestors netbooks opted for a small form factor and low specifications in order to keep costs down. I, like many geeks of the time, saw them as nothing more than a distraction as they filled a need that didn’t exist failing to remember the lessons I had learned many years before. The netbook form factor proved to be a wild success with many people replacing their PCs in favor of the smaller platform. They were however still fully fledged PCs.
Then along came Apple with their vision of creating yet another niche and filling it with their product. I am of course talking about the iPad which has enjoyed wild success and created the very niche that Apple dreamed of creating. Like with netbooks I struggled with the idea that there could be a place in my home for yet another computing device since I could already do whatever I wanted. However just like the netbooks before them I finally came around to the idea of having a tablet in my house and that got me thinking, maybe the curated experience is all most people need.
Perhaps the PC is better off as an appliance, at least for most people.
For the everyman their requirements for a computing device outside the workplace don’t usually extend past the typical “email, web and document editing” holy trinity. Tablets, whilst being far from an ideal platform to do all those tasks aptly (well, in my opinion anyway) they’re good enough to replace a PC for most people outright. Indeed the other Steve behind Apple, Mr Wozniak, has said that tablets are PCs for everyone else:
“The tablet is not necessarily for the people in this room,” Wozniak told the audience of enterprise storage engineers. “It’s for the normal people in the world,” Wozniak said.
“I think Steve Jobs had that intention from the day we started Apple, but it was just hard to get there, because we had to go through a lot of steps where you connected to things, and (eventually) computers grew up to where they could do … normal consumer appliance things,” Wozniak said.
If you consider the PC as a household appliance then the tablet form factor starts to make a lot of sense. Sure it can’t do everything but it can do a good chunk of those tasks very well and the barrier to using them is a whole lot lower than that of a fully fledged PC. Plus unlike a desktop or laptop they don’t seem out of place when used in a social situation or simply lying around on the coffee table. Tablets really do seem to be a good device for the large majority of people who’s computing needs barely stress today’s incredibly powerful PCs.
Does that mean tablets should replace PCs outright? Hell no, there’s still many tasks that are far more aptly done on PC and the features that make a tablet convenient (small size, curated experience) are also its most limiting factors. Indeed the power of tablets is built on the foundations that the PC has laid before it with many tablets still relying on their PC brethren to provide certain capabilities. I think regular users will gravitate more towards the tablet platform but it will still be a long time before the good old keyboard, monitor and mouse are gone.
There’s a phenomena that many of us IT folks deal with every day but not many outside our industry know about. It goes by many different names but the most apt one is what I refer to as the Qantas Club factor. You see whilst it’s all well and good to develop solid technology that provides tangible benefits to business it really doesn’t help if it doesn’t get any visibility with higher ups (or decision makers as the vendors call them). The one sure fire place to find an executive or someone who can sway the decision making process is the various flight clubs and lounges that they frequent whilst jet setting around the world. Any technology that is either present there or in the literature available to them is almost guaranteed to find its way into that decision maker’s organisation.
My own personal experience with this was Blackberrys. One of the top executives had been on a recent jaunt overseas with a couple of his peers from other organisations. Before they were boarding the flight they were all discussing their various exploits when the other two pulled out their Blackberrys. Feeling quite inadequate that he didn’t have one his own the executive put a request down the line to trial the Blackberrys within our organisation and no less than 2 weeks later we had 10 of them running rampant in our environment.
Now I wouldn’t of cared that much since Blackberrys do enable some people to be more productive than they could be otherwise and I’ll never turn down new kit. However we’d already been trialling our own solution (Exchange ActiveSync) that was not only free but would also run on a wide range of handsets, something that was deemed critical as part of the email on phones solution they wanted us to develop. Still the Qantas Club factor was enough for them to overrule all their previous decisions and push forward with a solution that, whilst completely functional, showed a complete disregard for any kind of practicality or reasoned thought.
The same can be said for the iPad. When it was released I lamented it’s limited ability and took a torchto the speculation that it would be a revolution in the online media space. I still stand by those comments as whilst it has been a unabashed success the revolutions it was meant to spur haven’t even begun to show their heads yet. It has however managed to change the landscape of consumer PCs devices effectively creating a new market segment, much like the netbooks did before it. Consequently many manufacturers are playing catch up to try and corner one part of this market and one of those has the Qantas Club factor executives squarely in its sites.
The product is the Windows 7 Slate from HP.
Now back when it was announced the Slate had your typical Microsoft vapourware flavour to it. They’re often guilty of announcing a product, usually with specs that border on the edge of reality, that will never see the light of day. It’s done to scare would be competitors out of the market and unfortunately has a track record of working. When the iPad was a runaway success that couldn’t be killed by this kind of grandstanding many people thought that HP had killed the slate completely, opting instead to acquire Palmand create an iPad competitor based on their WebOS software. This was all but confirmed when HP registered the trademark PalmPad as there didn’t seem to be any reason to release 2 competing platforms.
As it turns out though instead of pulling one in favour of the other they were in fact working on rebranding the device as a enterprise appliance:
We’ve sensed that something‘s been up with the HP Slate for a while now, and it looks like we’ve finally gotten the first solid confirmation that the Windows 7 tablet as unveiled by Steve Ballmer at CES in January won’t hit the consumer market as planned — speaking at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference, HP Personal Systems Group VP Todd Bradley just said that the Slate will be “more customer-specific than broadly deployed,” and that it would launch the Microsoft-based tablet “for the enterprise” in the fall. That fits right in with HP telling us the other day that it was in “customer evaluations” as it prepared for the “next steps,”and based on followup comments from Bradley and Palm head Jon Rubinstein, it certainly sounded like the company will focus Windows tablets at the enterprise and develop a variety of webOS devices for the consumer market.
Enterprise in this sense means it will more than likely be running either a fully fledged Windows 7 OS or a Windows 7 Compactinstall in order to support all enterprise functions (compliance, software deployment, etc.). Additionally I wouldn’t expect it to be a consumption focused device like the iPad purely because in the enterprise there’s not a great need for a casual computing device that fits that need. I can see them becoming the next execu-toy to have filling in a requirement that didn’t exist before the product became available.
That puts it firmly out of the league of the iPad, for better and for worse. Realistically there’s little to no justification for having an iPad in the enterprise as they’re solely focused on the consumer with no integration with traditional enterprise applications. This is by design and follows the trend that Steve Jobs follows. Apple has never been that big in the enterprise and never will be with Steve Jobs at the helm as he prefers to focus on consumers at the cost of other applications. That’s not a bad thing either as he’s shown that Apple can be quite a successful consumer electronics company and it looks like other companies are starting to take notice.
Does this mean I’ll be buying one? Probably not as it fits into the same requirements model that is aptly filled by a laptop, which I’m currently in the process of buying. It appears though that the demandfor a Microsoft alternative to the iPad is strong but unless you’re willing to shell out enterprise level dollars for it (read: probably double the iPad) it will be firmly out of your reach. There are wide range of alternatives of course, including the all but confirmed PalmPad, but none of them have drawn the attention that the HP Slate did when it was first announced.
I’m sure I’ll get to have a good play with one of them when one of the executives catches his friend using one before their next trip 😉