During a round of job interviews, I had an opportunity to be interviewed by Dr. Hugh Bradlow, CTO of Telstra. During the interview he asked for my thoughts on pads (slates). Here is an expansion of the three areas of my answer.
In the Enterprise
I think there will be some adoption of slate tablets in the commercial space. Since Compaq introduced the t1000 several years ago, there has been a steady niche demand for slate tablets in areas such as healthcare, hospitality, logistics, etc. In the absence of true slate products, many companies have been using convertible tablets, handhelds, or custom devices. I think Windows- or possibly Android-based devices will work well in this space, but the volume will be small. The trend for cheaper tablets may also open up some new opportunities that convertible tablets have been too pricey to fill. This view has been somewhat validated by HPs recent decision to introduce their Windows 7 tablet as an enterprise product.
In the Home
This isn’t the first attempt at slates in this scenario. However, it was still early in the days of digitization of media and there was also a larger problem in those early tablets – Windows. The minute you place Windows on a device, a user expects the full Windows experience. Not just from a performance standpoint, but from a use case standpoint. This is where Apple got it right. By putting the iPhone OS (or iOS now), Apple clearly positioned the iPad as a new device type aimed primarily at content consumption. Forrester has labeled this “Curated Computing.” The irony may prove to be that “curating” the user experience may allow the tablet market to form, but it also may limit it to no more than a niche market.
In essence, a slate would be an additional form factor, not replacing either a laptop or a phone, but an incremental device for media consumption. What the Amazon Kindle has done for ebooks, the iPad or other tablets could become for movies and other entertainment-focused media. It can also rationalize some of the form factors that have been rampant at the last several CES and Comdex shows – namely mobile internet devices (MIDs), portable media players (PMPs) and even portable gaming devices.
Devil’s Advocate Theory
Everything I’ve said thus far is all well and good. And gives my opinion on how the iPad (and possibly other slates) could succeed. But in the back of my mind I have another what-if theory. It all relates to Gartner’s Hype Cycle. I’ll let you read the link and not go into too much of it here. In general, with a hardware device you don’t see a major product release (from an OEM rather than an ODM) until the Slope of Enlightenment phase of the hype cycle. That is when customers truly understand (if not yet embrace) the product. My conspiracy theory around the iPad is this: What if Apple recognized the hype cycle and launched the iPad at or near the Peak of Inflated expectations? It would provide them the opportunity to push a lot of product in a short timeframe (this has clearly happened). It also puts them in a good place competitively in that, by the time competitors get products to market, slates will be entering the Trough of Disillusionment. By the time people realize that slates don’t live up to the hype, Apple will have made their money and will be reinvesting it in the next iPhone or some offshoot. Time will tell.
Apple clearly has the lead in the space. While not the first mover in tablets or even the slate form factor, they are definitely the first mover in this new round. This is a rare place for Apple, which usually lets others go first then they make it better, faster, and more expensive (strange twist there). If they truly gain a first mover advantage, I think it will be due to people realizing that slates don’t live up to the promise and the market will stop growing after Apple has captured the majority.
There is, however, a dark horse in this race that could shake it up – HP. HP was an early contender (actually announced a slate before Apple announced the iPad). Later they acquired Palm and WebOS has been the talk of late. Any OEM can push out a me-too Windows-based (or even Android-based) slate. WebOS gives HP a chance to differentiate; but, at best it can theoretically bring HP at parity with Apple. In reality, WebOS alone probably won’t bring HP close. There is another acquisition that I see as being more important to HP in this space and that’s their purchase of Phoenix’s HyperSpace and HyperCore technologies. I’ll go into the reasons why in another post, but in essence they could use the technology to create a curated mobile experience and a traditional Windows experience when “docked”.