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Summary:

That’s the question that Mike shot me via e-mail earlier today. A jkOTR reader and Samsung Q1 owner, Mike asks a valid question since he sees just a few manufacturers offering Slate Tablet PCs; he names Fujitsu, Motion and Electrovaya, now that HP no longer manufactures […]

Q1_video_4That’s the question that Mike shot me via e-mail earlier today. A jkOTR reader and Samsung Q1 owner, Mike asks a valid question since he sees just a few manufacturers offering Slate Tablet PCs; he names Fujitsu, Motion and Electrovaya, now that HP no longer manufactures the tc1100.

I shot my thoughts back to Mike on his excellent question, but with his permission, I thought that many folks might benefit from the conversation. I’ve expanded my response, but more importantly, I’m really interested in YOUR thoughts. I’ll set the stage here, but in the end, the most value will be gained by the most possible number of viewpoints!

The short answer I have for Mike is: YES, there is a future for Slates, but of course, you’ll have to continue along for my reasons why.

1. Right off the bat, while it might appear that the Slate Tablet PC market is shrinking due to only three main vendors, we can’t overlook the new players that just joined the market. Specifically, I’m thinking of Samsung, Asus and folks like TabletKiosk, Pioneer, Daewoo, and Founder. Yes, these Origami specification devices are all UMPCs, but they’re also fully functional Slate Tablet PCs. I also realize that several are based on the Amtek 700, but the point is: there are more options out there.

2. There will always be a market for Slate tablets in the verticals such as healthcare, sales, gaming and financial services to name a few. These markets rely much more on visuals and quick information lookup as opposed to heavy computing tasks, making both large and small slates very useful.

3. Computing needs are changing. Most of us started out with basic word processing and spreadsheets; both of which relied heavily on a keyboard for input. Think about today’s current computing landscape and you can see that an integrated keyboard isn’t needed (or likely desired) for tasks like:

  • RSS reading
  • Web surfing
  • Controlling home automation systems
  • Enjoying rich digital media content
  • Reading eBooks
  • Navigating through a TV interface like Sling Player, WMCE, or BeyondTV

So if there is a future for Slates, why isn’t it now? When will it be? What will it take? Wouldn’t you know it…I have thoughts on that too.

1. Slates are just now getting "understood" and the paradigm shift is literally just starting. Sure, you’ll always have the early adopters that "get it", but we’re missing two things to really start pushing the mainstream up the curve. Here they are:

  • Marketing is sorely lacking in this area. Slates (and even convertible Tablets) are often touted as "computers that you can ink on too". Why is the ‘inking’ secondary? Why not market it the other way around and focus on the intimate computing experience of interacting directly with your computer screen? Ah, part of it is due to the second missing item…
  • Not enough "killer apps" that Slates can take advantage of. There are some great apps the REALLY shine on a Tablet PC. MindJet’s Mind Manager immediately comes to mind, although there are several good examples. Most (if not all) of the functionality in Mind Manager can be done via a mouse and keyboard or via a digital pen. As a result, people aren’t seeing the compelling reason to use it on a Slate, but if they tried it, I’m sure they would see it’s a much more effective and enlightening user experience. We need more "killer apps" to convince the masses and these apps have to add much more value when used on within the Tablet PC environment. Even better ink support in today’s apps can go a long way here.
  • OK, I said two things, but here’s a third that will help. Inclusion of Tablet PC functionality in Vista will help educate folks, but it’s going to be a long time before we see that benefit. Adoption of Vista isn’t likely to go quickly, so this is a long term help, not a short term one.

2. So if there IS a future for Slates, when is it? My expectation is that like any paradigm shift, this will take time. With the right marketing and the right applications, I think we’re still 3 to 5 years away from really seeing Slates gaining acceptance. What I mean is: by that time people will stop walking up to me when I’m using a UMPC and asking me "what’s that new toy?". Slates and UMPCs aren’t toys, but they are misunderstood devices.

3. As we’ve often said here before, you have to use the right tool for the task. Would a Slate make the most sense if you plan to write a novel? Perhaps not unless you were to add a USB or Bluetooth keyboard. Could it be the tool of choice for small amounts of e-mail along with web surfing and other non-data-entry heavy tasks? Absolutely! Besides, the amount of data entry methods for a Slate Tablet PC is increasing by leaps and bounds as we speak. It might be an interesting project to tabulate the time you use a notebook’s keyboard vs. the time you use that same notebook WITHOUT the keyboard. If you’re a heavy keyboard user in this scenario, maybe a Slate isn’t for you and that’s OK. But if you find that only truly use a keyboard a minority of the time, say 25% or less of the time you actually use the computer, you might be able to ink your way through that 25%.

There you have it: my unsolicited thoughts on the Slate. Actually, since Mike asked me the question, I guess it was solicited, but that doesn’t make my opinion right by any means. I know you’ve got thoughts on the topic, so shout ‘em out in the comments. Think I’m wrong? You might be right! But we won’t know if you don’t join the conversation. ;) Thanks for the great question Mike!

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  1. Paul J Manoogian Monday, October 2, 2006

    I can definitely see the beauty of the slate. In fact, one of my main hopes is that the writing recognition (or speech) gets so good that I don’t ever need a mouse or keyboard again.

    As you guys know, I own a convertible. I like the keyboard because I still type faster than I write and I don’t like my hand getting cramped. But, with better technology (as it’s coming) comes less reliance on keyboards.

    Here’s the interesting question: As our children progress through school, and as technology changes our necessity for computing or paper devices, which technology becomes more prevalent for learning? Does the keyboard replace the need to write, or does writing and penmanship become important again? Do rule out writing for more focus on speech? There are some fundamental questions beyond personal and business need in the balance of how technology progresses.

    I think progress points to Slates with better text recognition and a finer focus on writing and pointing with the pen, along with some speech for dictation of long texts.

    My $0.02.

  2. I’d say that slates, of course, have a future. There are some things you can do better (annotations if nothing else!) just like a mouse introduced new things to the Apple and Windows worlds, and the mouse was thought of as too much trouble so it wouldn’t get used because you’d have to keep taking your hands off the keypad. (Sound familiar!?)

    But I would say that slates without a keyboard have a limited future relative to convertible tablets. Contertibles (or various form factors with a coneected built-in keyboard) are what I think will be most popular. It’s just too easy to type text compared to writing it, and I enjoy typing better than voice input. Others might go with slates only if voice recognition and control software starts to excel.. not everyone prefers to type.

  3. Slates are great. But the price needs to come down. For most people slates are not a desktop/laptop replacement, they are a suppliment. Most people are not willing/able to drop 2K on a main PC and another 2K on a slate. UMPC prices are doing a good job so far, but have thier own challenges (performance, battery, etc.)

    Give me a $1000 slate with 4-6 hour battery and decent performance.

  4. Do slates have a future? I’d answer with a qualified yes. The qualification is not about whether they ought to have a future, however. It is whether the inertia is too great to be overcome broadly.

    I compare the Tablet PC to the early days of Windows itself. I brought one organization onto Windows/386 way back when. (We need to add another line to that mail that floats around about kids today, designed to make us feel old… Windows was always the operating system that ran most computers.) Back then I saw a lot of the same inertia and slow acceptance that we see with Tablets, especially slates, today. Windows was used mostly to multitask DOS apps and few people saw enough worth in Windows apps to switch away from WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. Then along came Excel, Word, and a number of other great Windows apps, not to mention Windows 3.0, and there was a sudden change in the computing climate.

    But a lot of that change came from new users jumping directly to Windows and bypassing DOS altogether. Now, most people already use computers and are married to their keyboards and mice.

    I agree with the other posters that we need the killer apps for the Tablet. But I think the change will come when new users (meaning children these days, I guess) learn on that platform. I’ve watched a lot of kids and they get the pen right off the bat. I’ve watched a lot of adults and even teens, and they don’t get it more often than not. Much more often. It will take a lot to overcome that inertia.

    Convertibles are a mixed blessing. They get Tablets into the hands of users who wouldn’t buy a slate. But then they give them the ability to not learn to use the pen too readily.

    I haven’t yet seen the killer apps. OneNote is good, and 2007 might well be great. PlanPlus/GoBinder are good but not yet great. DyKnow is great, but its focus is narrow (education). ArtRage is great but is looked at as entertainment mostly. MindManager is great, but how many really use that functionality?

    And really, what the world is lacking is a great hybrid. The always-there keyboard is an unremoveable set of training wheels. The TC1100 was oh-so-close, but just missed the mark in too many ways. (It’s still my favorite Tablet, though.) We need a similar machine with a larger screen and the bells and whistles (e.g., indoor/outdoor screen, extended batter option), and a real keyboard–that can be disconnected and left behind but is solid and useable when connected. Everyone I’ve seen at school/work who has gotten the Tablet has done so because the decided to forego the keyboard for a while–knowing they could always put it back on if it didn’t work out. Most of them left it off and didn’t look back. That is how training wheels are supposed to work.

  5. Douglass Carmichael Monday, October 2, 2006

    I bought an early NEC slate, no longer made, ten inch, 2 lbs. A bit slow and not very stable, but I love it, keep using it fr reading, and wish it had a repalcement. I’ve got the q1 as a tolerable replacement but still use the NC for reading in bed because of the larger screen.

    A 2lb or less 10 or 12 inch slate would wonderful. easy to hook up to my 24″ dell monitor (i run the q1 on it)and it would be as good as the q1 for dictation. If it were a duo with 100G and speakers as god as the Q1 it would be my only machine.

  6. In my opinion, the reason why slates don’t sell beyond niche market is resolution. All slate you see now are at maximum XGA. With convertible doing SXGA+, why can’t slate do it to. I thing that most people will look that that spec and thing why buy that when I can get a higher res laptop of convertible for the same or lower price. That’s what stopping me righ now. Same with the UMPC, if UMPC would have come out at 1024×600 native, I would have been an early adopter. Also it would require a lot less software adaptation for it.

    I don’t have a tablet or UMPC yet, but isn’t the fact that your are inking on the device, your are holding it closer then a regular screen. Wouldn’t be better to cram the most pixels your can so you won’t see those pixels? It would probably also help those who don’t have a John Hancock size handwriting :-) , smaller pixels would follow their small handwriting.

  7. The future of the slate is down to the manufacturers, the UK at the moment is an open market.

    I work in the building trade as an electrical estimator, my M1400 is a god send it has saved me so much time, i can now do quotes on site rather than gathering the info and then doing it at the office.

    My M1400 is my main pc via a dock when i am in the office and my mobile pc out of the office.

    No matter what site i visit in the UK and some of them are new and fairly high spec offices the IT department look at me as if have just been beamed down from the Enterprise.(no i havnt got ears like spok)

    You guys in the US have got it good at least you can see the goods before you by, in the UK there is only 2 number Motion Dealers and they a small companies and dont stock much.

    So you manufacturers pull your fingers out, the UK is an un-tapped market, we may only be a small island but there are a lot of people over here.

    I should have stayed in sales :-)

    Kev…

  8. I love this impassioned advocacy of a failing form factor. I reckon similar arguments must have kept the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin aloft for so long.

  9. I’m currently using a convertable tablet (Acer Travelmate C204) and while I love it, I can really see the use of a slate tablet now that I’ve used this one for several months and have really seen my work habits. Before this tablet, I’ve only ever owned desktops so this was a big leap into the unknown for me.

    My next tablet will be a slate if I can get the performance of a near-desktop replacement computer in it. I say near-desktop because desktops will always be better gaming machines and bigger powerhouses. However, my needs aren’t too demanding and hey, they’ve already crammed most of them in this convertable I have now. This is what I want to see on my ideal slate:

    1. Resolution, resolution, resolution. I’ve got a 12.1″ screen on my current tablet at 1024×768 resolution. I haven’t used a resolution that low since our ’98 machine and, since it was a 12.1″ screen, I figured that would be an acceptable resolution. It is for every day computing tasks but when you get into ink (be it writing or drawing), the low resolution kills it. I like to do sketching and was looking forward to it. I don’t do much beyond doodles because the pictures are very pixelated as I’m working due to the low screen resolution.

    2. Dedicated video memory. My tablet right now has 64mb dedicated, 256mb shared. This is good for the gaming I do (mainly World of Warcraft) but isn’t asking a whole lot since I don’t need a ton of dedicated video memory for that. 64mb – 128mb would be ideal.

    3. Hard drive speed. Who the heck puts a 4200RPM, Fat32 formated hard drive in a powerhouse of tablet PC? Honestly! The Fat32 partitions were easily converted over but I’m looking at around $170 for a 5400RPM, 160GB hard drive replacement of the 4200 100GB drive the machine came with. I understand that Acer probably gets these drives cheaper and that can account for the lower prices, but they’re putting these in some higher-end machines (Ferrari series my friend got had a 4200 too). You know the old saying… “A computer is only as fast as it’s slowest part.” It unfortunately shows. I don’t need a monster hard drive on a slate but the more the merrier. 80GB – 100GB should be fine. It just means I can’t store quite so much junk on here. A hybrid drive would be nice, with it’s little bit of flash memory to speed up startup time.

    4. Battery life. My convertable gets about 3.5 hours when I have it unplugged with it’s 6-cell battery with the power saver settings I have on it. I think 5 hours of battery life on a slate would be perfectly fine.

    5. Weight. Thankfully slates tend to weigh less since there’s less of them but this has been one of the key factors that has me leaving my tablet at home, plugged in on the desk quite a bit. 5.5 pounds is actually a little heavier to lug around with you than it sounded on the spec sheet.

    Why would I give up the attached keyboard? Because I pretty much already have. I barely use the keyboard on my convertable unless I’m sitting on the couch and need to reply to a forum really quick and have a bit more to say than I feel like writing. I don’t use the built in keyboard on the tablet while it’s at my desk but instead a USB external keyboard that rests on the keyboard try. Why? Well, because the keyboard tray is at a more comfortable level for me to type. I also had to move my mouse down to that keyboard tray (bluetooth mouse from Logitech) because I’m right handed and the exaust port for the CPU is on the right hand side of the tablet. My hand gets to hot using it up on the desk so the mouse moved down first. They keyboard followed. The only reason I have the keyboard showing on my tablet right now is because I have to have it at that angle to see the screen. A docking port and a slate tablet pc could easily replace this with my current setup provided it has the specs I need to make it my primary computer.

  10. For many people the best argument for a slate is mobility – if you are carrying a Tablet PC around with you having the lowest weight can be very important. The best combination for many people is a slate with a dock at your desk, allowing the best of both world: mobility on the go, and full function at the desk.

    There are some times in which pen input for activities such as Web browsing is preferable, for example when sitting on a sofa or showing something to someone else at a table. However, it is preferable not because it is easier to do but because it is often easier set up or carry one tool (a pen) instead of two tools (keyboard and mouse).

    If you need to carry around a keyboard, get a convertible. If you don’t, get a slate and a desktop dock.

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