Sunday, May 2, 2010

How the iPad Killed HP's Slate

In a sense, the iPad was released twice in the span of one month. First, the iPad wifi hit stores April 3rd, and seemed to be nothing short of a successful launch. 27 days later, on April 30th, the iPad 3G was released into the wild. Again, the lines formed around the Apple stores as fans awaited the launch of their highly-anticipated 3G-enabled iPad.

Many said the iPad was a stupid idea. Heck, some still do. After all, it can't multi-task, it doesn't have Flash and it doesn't exactly do anything a laptop can't do. Yet somehow, Apple's latest gadget was able to see two successful launches. HP, who was destined to give the iPad a run for its money, can't even manage one. But why?

There is no denying that the iPad had heavy press coverage even before it was confirmed as true. Apple was the big winner of CES 2010…and the company wasn't even there. Yet all the media and tech blogs could talk about was Apple's new magical device.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer even went on to show off Hewlet Packard's upcoming slate during the pre-CES keynote. Whether it was in an attempt to beat Apple to the punch in popularizing slate computing, or mere coincidence, he made sure to show off the Windows 7 tablet at the show. it never came. Sometimes it's common for a major company to spill big money into a product, demo the device and have it never see the light of day.

Last week it was reported that HP had canceled their tablet. According to some media outlets, HP was not satisfied with Windows 7 as a tablet OS.

On paper, When compared to the iPad, HP Slate should have provided a strong competitor for Apple's device; it multi-tasks, runs flash, has a (when looking strictly an numbers) stronger processor, built-in webcam HDMI out, USB 2.0 port. Engadget tallied up their specs and found that pound-for-pound, the HP tablet may easily seem like the wiser purchase. Almost all of those advantages are things that Apple's machine has been criticized for. It should have been a sure-fire winner among Windows users. It could be that the device was destined to run a standard version of Windows 7 rather than an optimized Windows 7 more suitable for mobile devices. The image below shows the specifications of each device next to each other:


(Image: Engadget)

It's easy to play the spec game; load your product with features and narrow it down to the essentials to put in only what is needed for the time. However, this also opens up the difficult strategy of improving your product up in incremental releases and capturing the audience each time. A strategy Apple is very familiar with. There is a difference between taking a risk to make a breakthrough and just following through with what's hot. HP took an easier route while Apple, as they like to do, decided to place added importance on the future of slate computing. So far, it seems to have paid off.

When creating a tablet computer, which amounts to what is essentially a laptop without a keyboard, its about holding a device upright in your hands. With standard laptops users have the luxury or setting it on a desk or just resting their hands on their computer while they wait for a page to load. A minute wait for a program to launch seems a lot longer when holding up the computer with your hands, as is the case with a tablet. When holding something in their hands, people naturally opt for total control. Chances are that Apple realized this early on as they struggled to create the iPhone. They likely had a good idea as to how far they would have to optimize their OS to run on a tablet. Which put Apple at a major advantage when designing the user interface.

Often when reducing the size of a device, battery life has to be sacrificed, because the battery is also becoming smaller. Run a full-fledged operating system like Windows seven on a tablet, complete with all the bells and whistles of a laptop. Battery performance is going to suffer. Chances are that HP saw this as a potential problem and knew that this was not the time to invest in a Windows slate. Combine that with the megaton load of media exposure Apple had before, during and after the iPad announcement and even running through it's release it's hard to see yourself in the top spot against them.

HP's tablet wasn't the only casualty of the iPad's extensive media coverage and popularity. Microsoft canceled their Courier. The device was said to be a tablet PC (or two? Sort of?) hinged together at the side, almost like a book. Perhaps it wasn't made with the same sort of drive that Apple products are always pushed with. It's rumored that Jobs' tough management techniques have made people cry. In a 2007 book entitled The No A--hole Rule, it was said that, "[Jobs] inspires astounding effort and creativity from his people," and that a Silicon Valley insider told the author that he had seen Jobs verbally thrash several employees and make some of them cry, though this insider finished with saying that Jobs "was almost always right." It brought out some of the best work in people, no doubt. However, it's also important to remember that unlike Apple, Microsoft isn't a hardware-focused company, but that's what works for them.

What made the iPad so popular in the end, however, was it's ease of use. It may seem hard to imagine, but to some older people, the computer mouse is a strange concept. It has nothing to do with their intelligence, they simply haven't been exposed to it as much as we have. But a device that trims the user experience down to nothing more than pointing at where you want to go has already changed some lives. (That sounds like a stretch, but please watch the heartwarming video of a 100-year-old woman learning to use her first computer, an iPad.)

iSmashPhone even ran the iPad through the child test. Putting a 5-year-old on a computer for the first time didn't exactly work out as easily as we imagined. However, the kid is very familiar with his Nintendo DS. For simplicity's sake, upon presenting him with the iPad, we just told him it was a new computer for the house. The more hands-on pointing interface of the iPad worked. Now he says he likes the iPad better than his DS and cartoons. It's fascinating to see how computing becomes totally different for him than it was for our generation.

The thing is, technology isn't always about the fastest processor or how many USB ports you can cram into your device. Sometimes it's about making for a satisfying experience without the hassle of too many plugs and adapters. Sometimes it's about making at least one aspect of life a little bit easier.

In the end, it's about the experience, not always what's under the hood.

That said, we truly hope that HP has learned from their failed Slate project and can use their purchase of Palm to improve their approach. Even though we do have a love for our Apple products, we have even more of a love for the technology industry. The last thing we want to see if Apple shutting off the tablet space to the rest of the industry. Competition, after all, is the father of invention.