Do Slate Tablets have a future?

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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