5 Things Slates Must Have to Drive Sales

It seems the rush to bring slate devices to market is not going to slow down, thanks to the announcement of the iPad (s aapl) 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 (s msft) 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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