Back at CES 2010, Steve Ballmer gave a keynote speech that included the first public demonstration of a new class of Windows 7 based computer. The small, tablet like computer system was dubbed the slate because of is relatively small size and touchscreen interface. Since that time, Ballmer has also made mention of the Slate computers at the Worldwide Partners Conference as being a huge push for the later half of 2010. Microsoft has pushed tablet style computers in the past without much success but they expect things to be different this time around. But will it? This article takes a look at what the Slate systems will be like and how they make succeed or more likely fail.
What Is A Slate?
Slate computers are often referred to as tablet PCs because of their form factor. Their size is about the same as a spiral bound notebook. Typical dimensions are around 10-inches tall by 7-inches wide and a half inch thick. Weight is roughly between one and a half to two pounds. This makes them extremely portable even over the netbook class of laptops. Rather than a folding design with a keyboard and screen, the screen will take up one face and will be multi-touch enabled as there is no keyboard or tracking device.
In terms of the actual hardware, most of the first slates will likely be built upon the Intel Atom processors that could be found in netbooks. Their low power draw and x86 compatibility make them ideal for transitioning the Windows 7 operating system into the new form factor. Because of the x86 architecture, the systems will still need to have RAM in addition to some sort of flash storage. Many will also include a webcam for video conferencing. Optical drives will not be included due space limitations.
What Will A Slate PC Run?
As for the software, the slate computers will be running a version of the Windows 7 operating system. One of the big additions to the Windows 7 software is a new touchscreen interface that includes virtual keyboard and multi-touch support. Without these features, the slate systems would require additional software on top of the operating system to properly function without the keyboard and mouse. This has the distinct advantage of letting a slate run the exact same software as a traditional laptop or desktop PC. Many companies will find this useful as it keeps software support to a minimum.
The problem with this design is the legacy support. Most Windows software is not designed with a touchscreen interface but instead with a keyboard and mouse. This will make using much of the software more difficult. Now companies such as HP have been designing touchscreen software to run on top of the OS but this eats up precision system resources.
Windows 7 Slate vs. Apple's iPad
The biggest challenge facing the Windows 7 Slates is the fact that Apple released the iPad before any of the Windows 7 Slate designs. The iPad takes a very different approach to tablet computing that directly challenges Microsoft's key goals in making the the slate a popular form factor.
First off, the iPad is priced around the same as the early Windows 7 Slate systems. With a base price of $499, the base iPad was roughly $50 to $100 cheaper than the initial price point established by HP before their slate PC was delayed. While this isn't much, it is a key factor that many consumers use when making purchasing decisions. This is one of the reasons why netbooks were as popular as their are.
Apple's iPad also has some distinct advantages over the Windows 7 Slate designs. Probably the most notable of these is the battery. Apple's low power hardware is more efficient than the Atom processor resulting in running times of up to ten hours. This is nearly double the early estimates for the Windows 7 Slate tablets. This is a very critical component for anyone who might be using a tablet PC in lieu of a laptop when traveling and have limited access to power outlets.
The biggest advantage for the iPad though is the software. Since the iPad does not run the same Mac OS X environment, it is not restricted to the old keyboard and pointer interface as Windows 7 Slates will be. This makes the software much easier to use by the average person let alone by someone who isn't familiar with computers. Young children can pick up an iPad and understand the basics in a matter or hours compared to a traditional computer that takes days or weeks. All of the software also uses the built-in multi-touch gestures. Admittedly, this does require additional software purchases in addition to any software for the PC but this is where the typical argument of running the same applications as a traditional PC fall apart.
Most users typically use a small set of applications with a tablet style PC. These include mail, web browsing, note taking and presentation software. Most of these applications in Windows 7 are still not written to take advantage of a touchscreen interface because of the legacy keyboard and pointer designs. They are also typically written to run on hardware with more powerful processors and RAM. This will lead to performance issues for some applications on a Windows 7 Slate.
Apple's solution of running software that is optimized for the hardware and interface makes more sense. Sure, users will have to learn the new interface and buy more applications. But with many applications cost under $10 and are fully compatible with the common document types, it isn't as much of an issue. The fact that they are easy to use and affordable makes up for the ability to run the exact same applications with their legacy interfaces.
Microsoft has taken some key steps in making a tablet style PC a much more viable alternative with a Windows 7 Slate compared to their past Tablet PC fiasco. The problem is that they need to step beyond the need for full compatibility with traditional Windows 7 desktops and laptops. The interface is radically different from the traditional keyboard and mouse. Apple's approach is both easier to use and more efficient. The pricing of the Windows 7 Slates will also make or break the format. Unfortunately, the similar pricing of the iPads and the lower cost netbooks will make many consumers probably skip the Windows 7 Slates. The result is a niche product that probably won't catch on with the mass market the same way that netbooks did for affordability and the iPads did with ease of use.