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Summary:

Consumers are about to be hit with a wide range of slate computers. There are five traits a slate must have to drive sales. These traits combine to deliver a comfortable and fun experience for the consumer. Surfing the web has never been easier.

Slate

It seems the rush to bring slate devices to market is not going to slow down, thanks to the announcement of the iPad earlier this year. There are slates poised to hit the market from big companies and small companies alike. The expected flood of devices to choose from has me thinking about the traits a slate must have to provide the best user experience. Here are the 5 things slates must have to drive sales.

1. Comfortable form. This is only common sense, but it is crucial for a given slate to be widely accepted in the marketplace. Slates are meant to be used one way — in the hands — which means thin and light. Equally important is the weight distribution to allow users to handle it in different ways. Some will use it in landscape orientation to fit web pages, while others will prefer the portrait orientation to mimic a notepad. Since slates will weigh at least 1 – 2 pounds, the weight must be spread over the entire device. It will not be comfortable to use if there is a heavy battery on one side.

2. Proper size. Slates are, by design, highly portable devices, intended to be used virtually anywhere. This precludes making them too big and heavy. A good size range to balance portability and usability is in the 9 – 10 inch screen range. This is big enough to display web pages comfortably, an expected usage for slates, yet small enough to fit in any bag. Smaller than this size and the screen starts getting too small for all possible uses, and larger screens will result in heavier, harder to carry slates.

3. Good touch screen. Slates are driven by touch, and that function must be responsive. A good capacitive touch screen will go a long way to making the interface natural to control by hand. Intelligent multitouch implementation is key as the ability to totally run things by fingertip is mandatory. Users must be able to point and click, move things around, resize images and perform intricate operations by hand. This is an area not open to compromises, to keep the user experience good enough to drive sales.

4. Solid web experience. These devices are not intended to replace computers, there are plenty of those around already. The slate will be a natural web appliance, simply by factor of its form, and I predict most of them will be used heavily for working with the web. This means the browser included on the slate must have absolutely no compromises in use, compared to the desktop equivalent. Slate users will visit the same web sites they do on other computers, and will demand these sites work. Sites that are heavily Flash or Javascript based will require a full browser to use properly. Any slate that fails in this regard will frustrate users, and with competition heating up this is a death knell.

5. Price. The slate is not intended to replace a computer for anyone, nor should it. There are already Microsoft Windows Tablet PCs available that serve that purpose, especially for professional purposes. These slates are auxiliary devices by nature, and only need focus on that approach. The cost must be kept low enough to the consumer that the purchase can be justified. It’s easy for a buyer to pick up a slate because it’s cool and fun, but not when the price crosses a certain point. I believe that point is in the $600 range, and once that threshold is crossed the marketing is going to get difficult indeed. Ideally, a $400 slate will fly off the shelves, as they become more of an impulse buy. These slates are going to be subsets of full computers, and purchase gets much harder to justify when the price gets too close to that of those computers. It is the same as the netbook effect — sales ramped up quickly as folks could justify buying a less capable computer if the price was much lower.

These traits are the ones I find most important for a slate to gain market acceptance. They are going to be aimed at the mainstream consumer, not the geek types who demand more from their computers. They will end up being sold in big box retail stores, and for that to happen successfully they must be comfortable, fun and cheap.

To those wondering why the choice of operating system didn’t make my list — I don’t think it’s important. It must be easy to use, light on the processor and most of all optimized for touch. These will be accepted as leisure appliances, not computers, so the OS is not a factor. I do think it better be maintenance free for the user.

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  1. Looks like the iPad fits the bill for most of your requirements sans that awful Flash support (Go HTML 5).

    I think the Apple iPad will FLY OFF THE SHELF at your local Best Buy come April. Yep, no doubt about it.

    The PC makers are scrambling like mad to try to come up with a slate that can be competitive with Apple. Time will tell but my money is on the engineers in Cupertino.

    I have signed up to be an Apple Dev and look forward to writing my first iPad business application, IT WILL BE AWESOME !

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  2. The touch implementation is an interesting one to me. Apple has taken a good touch system (iPhone) and enlarged the screen and resolution, among other things. This seems like a better approach than others that are taking a desktop system (Windows) and making a slate based on that.

    Android-based slates have promise since they started from a touch-oriented arena as well.

    I believe starting from touch and changing the resolution will result in a better machine than starting from desktop and attaching touch. I also think it will be easier for small-device developers to adapt their programs for larger devices.

    Just my opinion…

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  3. It’s been awhile, but my recollection is that $300 was the magic “impulse buy” price point. Lower is better, but above that was a really hard sell (notice $300 is a really popular netbook price point).

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  4. All that is good, but…What about inking?

    The iPad would have been my perfect device, except that there’s no real inking to speak of. Ever try “writing” with your finger? Not easy at all. Then think of all the ways it’s easier to jot something down on a piece of paper with a pen, and how much difficult that becomes when trying to use your iPad tablet to take notes on.

    You are right though, in that a slate is an auxiliary device. I honestly wouldn’t want to do hard work on a slate, but if I’m with a client at a job site, doing sketch work or notes on the slate, then doing the real work on the computer would be hugely invaluable to me.

    Looking forward, I’m probably hoping to get an iPad myself, and hoping that someone will develop a decent inking notes app and a decent capacitive stylus for writing. I could see lots of use in my work for this device. Initial sketch work, storyboarding (see: Hitchcock App), client note-taking, presenting media to potential clients, scheduling shoots and on and on.

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  5. Based on the work that I’ve done and my fledgling consulting practice, there are at least 2 additional things that are required and both of these may be more important than #4 & #2 above.

    • Must have a rich content ecosystem delivered directly to the device. While web browsing is an activity that everyone engages in, the ability however to bring content that exists online directly to the device in richer and more intuitive ways is absolutely paramount. This is why companies like Dell will face an uphill battle here even if they get all of the hardware right on the device – services like iTunes (media, books and applications) let users acquire and purchase content and applications without having to search multiple websites with different types of experiences plus they have a built-in financial relationship with that service that becomes seamless (low friction) to the whole process.

    • Must also have a rich “entertainment” experience. This is different than above in that it’s not about just having the access to the content, but rather the applications that are utilized for these activities need to be “great” and easily accessed. And by “entertainment” it’s not just about games or media, it’s about letting users perform simple tasks that keep them engaged and occupied for brief to long periods of time. Thus it needs to provide user value when they’re sitting on the bus, or on a plane or have a few minutes to kill between meeting. What the user does during those slices of time need to be the key portion of value that is being derived from the device.

    • The size of the device is probably the biggest variable that can be manipulated between solutions. For some users, a 10″ device is going to be the perfect size, for others, it will be smaller, but it’s going to be driven primarily by the type of experience that can be provided in that form factor.

    Does Apple have this all locked up? No, but they’re absolutely on the right path.

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  6. I think you’re basically right. Form factor (size, weight, balance, heat, texture, sexiness) is way at the top of the list. These things will be in your hands a lot so it has to feel good to hold, and it better impress the people at the coffee shop. Screen interaction and the software are next on the list – important, but easy to fix after the purchase. Early adopters will be less sensitive to the relatively higher price early on, and as volume goes up prices will come down.

    My only disagreement would be concerning Flash. I could easily live without it, so the lack of Flash would be far down my list of considerations.

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  7. I need INSTANT-ON capability (or close to instant on). I am much more likely to use an 9.7 inch iPad than my 10.1 netbook because of the iPad’s quick startup time. Especially when I am on the move.

    Hopefully Apple will move a boat load of those slates and we will start seeing some really innovative apps, games, interactive books/mags/tv, and some unique data productivity apps that are finger-driven (not lame ms office junk).

    Be prepared for a tidal wave of iPad copycats to come out beginning this summer and lasting YEARS, much the same way all the phone makers have been trying desparately to copy the 3 year old iPhone still today. ha ha. :-)

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  8. James, I think a large collection of software written for touch input is a serious issue. At least a one or two on that list. Even if the device is cheap unless you can do something useful with it why would anyone buy it?

    Frankly I think the lack of tablet capable software was one of the major contributors to the table PC fiasco.

    I also feel that for a tablet to work it has to be performant. No one wants a laggy tablet. I chalk this one up as a another painful learning experience for MS on the Tablet PC as well.

    I also think you under estimate the power of Apple to change the web. iPad users will likely been seen as an affluent group, just as iPhone users have. Web site owners and advertisers will cater to them and the lack of Flash will be no big deal for them. Other tablets lacking this niche capability will suffer heavily from the lack of Flash support unless they can mimic being an iPad. :-)

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  9. Its not a slate, but I am wondering how Lenovo’s proposed Skylight will compete against slates once it is released?

    –Ken

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  10. And inking, so it can be used for notes

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