Listen Up, Tablet Makers: It’s Not Just Form Factor

HP Slate NYT

The mobile tech space is in the firm grip of tablet-mania, fueled no doubt by the emergence of the iPad . There is a good reason for this, obviously a product with a thin, light slate form factor is appealing to quite a few. Having used slate devices for years, I can understand the excitement that such a gadget can invoke in consumers. My experience gained using many different tablets makes it clear to me that the slate form factor alone is not enough to make a slate successful. It’s all about the user experience.

The iPad is exciting because it takes a platform that was designed from the ground up to be used in a slate form, albeit one very small, and is intended to be totally controlled by touch. All user interaction will take place using touch on the screen, and the platform was designed for that in every way. This guarantees that working with the interface will not be frustrating, and a handheld device that is frustrating to use will be a miserable failure no matter how useful it might be for consumers.

You don’t have to take my word for it, there have been failed attempts that demonstrate what I am saying. Microsoft had good intentions with the UMPC/Origami devices, but they failed miserably in the market. You can make an argument that there were a number of reasons behind the Origami failure, but the primary failing was the miserable user experience. The Origami Project was a slate/touch interface plopped on top of the Windows desktop OS, and it didn’t go far enough to turn Windows into a good slate interface. Even enthusiasts desperate for a slate device couldn’t get behind Origami because it was too frustrating to use.

More recently we saw the same failure in the smartphone space. Windows Mobile has always been an excellent platform for handheld devices, but all versions of the OS to date were not designed for slate/touch operation. Third party shells from HTC and Spb Software went a long way in turning the Windows Mobile interface into a better slate experience, but they couldn’t go far enough due to the old school OS sitting underneath it all. Like the Origami Experience, once you went beyond the cool touch shell on top of the OS, things got frustrating really quickly.

Mobile devices like slates, that are used in the hands by the very nature of the form factor, cannot be frustrating to use. A device can be a great form and be very useful for many, but if it is frustrating to use it will fail in the marketplace. Users need slates to be pleasant to use while doing the things they want to do with them, and they will not tolerate frustration of any kind.

I have great hope that the iPad will be such a slate, given its platform. I also believe that other platforms can be leveraged on slate devices with good results. Android is a platform based on touch interaction, and slates can leverage that with good results. I also think that if Google makes a totally touch-friendly version of the Chrome OS due later this year, that we could see some awesome tablets using that platform.

I don’t have good feelings about any Windows-based tablets such as the HP Slate. I like everything I’ve seen so far about the HP Slate, but having Windows under the hood is not likely to make for a good user experience. If HP puts a good touch interface on the Slate it will be interesting, but as soon as you have to dive into the Windows underpinnings, I’m afraid it will be just like the failed Origami Experience.

Let’s hope that tablet makers are thinking about this too. I believe that the technology exists to make great slates, even by companies not in Cupertino. The slates need to have a thin and light form on the hardware side, and couple that with an interface that is totally designed to be manipulated by fingers. And above all else do not frustrate the user; even a little bit.

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