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Gates wasn't talking about some closed, feature-limited, Flash-challenged, multi-touch Apple fan-boy toy. He believed that real, pen-based PCs running Windows would take over the world.
As with all his major predictions, Gates was wrong. Pen-based computers didn't dominate the PC market by 2006. But he was right about one thing. Tablet computers will take over and dominate the PC market one day. And Windows-based tablets will become a major market.
Just not this year. And not pen-based.
The HP Slate demos well, and the company appears to be on the right track. Unfortunately, it's very unlikely the Slate will succeed. It could have. It should have. But it won't. Here's why.
Meet the Slate
The HP Slate's feature set reads like a list of what's missing from the iPad, including:
Flash support USB port Removable flash storage Camera
According to a rumored leaked document acquired by the gadget blog Engadget, the HP Slate has a screen smaller than the iPad's, but one that may make the device easier to handle and also more compatible with HD movie aspect ratios. The screen is reported to be 8.9 inches screen with a resolution of 1024 x 600.
The Slate offers both a standard VGA port and an HDMI port, so HD videos and presentations can be displayed on a big TV without an adaptor. It has two cameras: One 3-megapixel camera on the back for taking pictures, and another lower-quality camera on the front for video-conferencing.
The Slate is powered by a 1.6 GHz Atom Z530 processor from Intel, and has a gigabyte of non-upgradable RAM.
What's Wrong with Slate
HP CTO Phil McKinney said in a promotional video that the Slate is "a mainstream product, not a niche offering." And the leaked Engadget memo compares the Slate feature-for-feature with the iPad.
And this is the problem with the HP Slate. The company is trying to complete with a device that is fundamentally different.
The iPad runs what is essentially a cell phone operating system. It's designed exclusively for mobility. It's a touch smartbook, rather than a touch netbook.
The HP Slate, on the other hand, is running a desktop operating system -- Windows, no less -- plus an application interface layer that can only add to the processing and memory burden.
HP is trying to compete with the iPad on price. The Slate will start at $549. How does a PC match the price of a cell phone? You mis-match on performance. You add only 1 GB of RAM. You use an underpowered processor. You offer sucky battery life.
I'm not aware of a single Windows expert who recommends running Windows 7 on fewer than 2GB of RAM. The reason is that Windows 7 is a sluggish, unusable pig with only 1 GB.
Sure, the Slate has more memory and processing power than the iPad. But the iPad is a big cell phone. The Slate is a small PC. There is no conceivable way that the Slate can even approach the iPad's impressive overall performance running Windows 7 in 1 GB of RAM.
HP's demos imply that the Slate runs full Windows 7 applications. The Apple iTunes application, of all things, is highlighted in one demo. We can assume they'll be able to multi-task.
Can you imagine running Windows 7, plus an HP-designed UI layer, plus iTunes, plus Microsoft Outlook, plus Firefox, plus streaming video via the camera all at the same time in 1 GB of RAM?
Also note that the iPad is running a custom-designed processor, which exists to maximize iPad performance. The HP Slate will run a general-purpose processor.
The HP Slate's advantages -- Flash, USB, cameras -- are peripheral benefits. The iPad's advantages -- performance, battery life and app store -- are central and elemental.
One of the best things about iPad is true "instant on" and "instant off." The Wintel world has been promising instant on for years, but has failed to produce anything better than problematic "sleep mode." Will the HP Slate offer real "instant on"? Running Windows 7, it's unlikely.
Also, the iPad offers real but rudimentary MPG (multi-touch, physics and gestures) computing. The HP Slate appears to have multi-touch, but not physics or gestures. MPG is the "magical" part of the iPad that is making the thrill of using the device so hard to describe for some users. The HP Slate appears to be essentially a pen-type interface that also works with touch.
Bottom line: The HP Slate may offer features and functions missing from the iPad, but it won't be thrilling to use in the same way the iPad is.
Why the iPad Is Selling Well
Pundits like pretending that consumers do buy, or at least should buy, devices based on the product alone. But that's a fantasy.
Apple sold more than 300,000 iPads sight-unseen. Critics claim that this phenomenon proves how blind Apple fans can be. But I think the success of the iPhone and iPad Touch help explain it. People pre-ordered based to a very large degree on familiarity and trust built up with three years with the iPhone and iPod Touch.
What about HP's cell phone, the iPAQ? I would guess that most potential buyers of the Slate aren't even aware that the iPAQ is still for sale. It's been a complete failure in the market.
My point isn't that HP can't build a compelling device. My point is that, unlike Apple, it doesn't have tens of millions of happy cell phone users who just want a bigger one. Even if HP shipped a better, more compelling device than the iPad, it would still have a much harder time selling it than Apple has.
What HP Should Have Done
HP is one of the few companies that sells the full range of computing, from consumer digital cameras all the way up to enterprise grid-computing data centers.
The company should have taken advantage of this breadth and developed two tablet computers -- one for consumers based on a cell phone platform like Android -- and one for enterprises based on Windows and/or Linux.
The consumer tablet should have been cheap, light, and offered great media support. The enterprise version should have cost what it needs to cost to run Windows or Linux effectively, and optimized for business use.
The enterprise tablet would have been the real opportunity. The company could have been first out of the gate with a real business tool based on touch. By the time big companies start buying these things by the truckload, HP could have been the trusted leader.
Instead, HP is combining consumer and business elements into a product that doesn't fit, won't work well and certainly won't do anything good for HP's reputation in the sub-notebook market. And it won't sell very well, either.
You iPad haters, don't despair. Many more tablets are coming. I'm sure you'll find the right tablet by the end of the year. It's just that the HP Slate probably isn't it.