The tablets come down from the mountain
This year , instead of surrendering my belongings and person to the newly Federalised US airport security and experiencing the intense delights of involuntary frottage in jam-packed aircraft for the second time in a week, I stayed home from Comdex. I also got to forgo a galloping case of double-dip jet lag, risking my hard earned pocket change on one-armed bandits and avoiding the potentially violent scenes that could have resulted when desperate computer industry hucksters begged me again to suspend my disbelief and endorse their ‘new’ ‘unique’ ‘secure’ ‘revolutionary’ products.
I decided to see if broadband could be an adequate substitute for being packed into a conference hall for the ritual keynote by His Billness and stubbornly declined a ticket to the legendary Nevada technofest. Yes, the annual PC and networking industry event took place in Las Vegas but without my up front and personal intervention. Signs are that all parties concerned were happy enough at the outcome! Bill in a Windows Media window is somehow better-especially when you can avoid sight of the embarrassingly puerile Microsoft lickspittles in the audience cheering his every full stop.
But there was another chance to sample the delights in person ante. Just a few days before the big bash in the desert, Microsoft and cohorts used New York to stage a debut for the much touted saviour for a personal computer industry in the doldrums-the Tablet PC.
For those who have heretofore slumbered peacefully through the massed PR brass bands in aid of the latest batch of new unique secure and revolutionary computing development, the Tablet PC is a Wintel notebook without a keyboard but with a touch screen instead, sometimes. Another important thing to consider is that they are generally more expensive than a comparable notebook. Other salient features will be applauded or booed anon.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young said circa 30 years ago, we have all been here before. The late great Convergent Technology (that disappeared into Unisys) had a Work Slate that appeared back the mid-80s. There wasn’t a lot of great processor, software, battery or display technology abounding back then (as now) so it is not surprising that a relatively expensive techie toy that required you to create your own applications didn’t make enough waves to dampen the ankles of most business computer users.
Various other and sundry efforts have been made since to improve on that innovative dismal failure. Most notably was the last big try by Microsoft, Windows for Pens that enjoyed widespread industry support, much innovation from industry players old and new and promptly died a death. When it was rolled out along with Windows 3.1 in 1991, it had 30-odd hardware makers committed to producing the necessary tablet computers. But it was not to be and it was quietly rolled back in.
Since the Windows for Pens debacle (and the write offs of those 34 thrusting (trusting?) companies that agreed to develop and ship hardware for its employment, we have had a succession of interesting mini-tablet devices, christened PDAs at least in a partial effort to edge them away from the stink of death of W4Ps. We all know what happened to the Newton (but perhaps not why?). The PalmOS seems to have made it into the corporate big time and Microsoft’s WinCE lame copycat is now approaching porcine usefulness.
The keys to PDA success are portability, ease of use, legions of great applications (in the case of the Palm anyway), long battery life and integration with desktops and networks. Will new unique secure revolutionary tablet PCs offer enough in addition to the exercise one gets carrying a kilo of computer everywhere?
At the risk a plague of locusts or getting a lightning bolt up the backside, I will borrow a well-known format to distil my awareness of the complex interplay of factors that will determine the immediate success or eventual failure of the tablet PC.
If you are tempted to look deeper into the new unique secure and revolutionary tablet PCs, perhaps ten Inside Track commandments should be reflected on in quiet moments before signing any large purchase orders.
The ‘Ten Commandments’
1. Thou shalt deliver obvious benefit. Bells and whistles are annoying to most users and should never distract a seasoned IT buyer from focusing on the core benefit of the ‘new etc’ offering. In fact, where training and support costs real money, bells and whistles can tip the equation away from cost effectiveness.
2. Thou shalt not be gulled by vapourware. We have all been here before (It sounded better with Graham Nash’s harmony…). Let’s see some of those tablet PCs in use (or at least on the High Street shelves). It is frighteningly hard to use press releases, Powerpoint slideware and engineering samples to deliver leading edge productivity.
3. Thou shalt make it twice as good or half as expensive. Change is dangerous but necessary so you should only embrace it if there is a damn good pay off. NASA came unstuck with ‘faster, better, cheaper’ not because it was a bad idea but because of their crap execution.
4. Thou shalt not over promise and under deliver. Remember 3G. Don’t let a Windows for Pens déjà vu all over again be your epitaph.
5. Thou shalt embrace a killer application. Significant advances in computing have almost always been associated with the ability to do something new (and useful to many). The tablet PC killer app is NOT Microsoft eReading! Does your company think for a minute that buying a tablet PC so that busy execs can read the Financial Times in a taxi (until the battery runs out) is a great investment in technology?
Microsoft’s kimono peeping exercise for OneNote is interesting but not a killer app in my humble opinion.
6. Thou shalt make security better and never worse. The jury is still out on Microsoft’s determination to right previous security wrongs. The accretion of flaws in their lax architecture is against them but they are bright and have the money to get it right, eventually.
The 802.11 b connectivity in tablet PCs is great and was probably the missing vital ingredient in earlier iterations. As long as the stuff that is travelling through the ether has no need for any security, it’s a boon. I wouldn’t want convenience to be the entré for a bad security lapse in my company, would you? How would you like your credit applications, medical records or love letters exposed to war chalkers? Hmmmmm?
7. Thou shalt not swoon when the appeal is to niche markets alone. Niche market purchasers will pay over the odds, but to get the ball rolling in the way to which we have been accustomed as PC buyers, there’s gotta be mass market appeal in the near term.
8. Thou shalt judge the value of meaningful, substantial and committed partners. You could walk down Ming Sheng East Road in Taipei dressed like Ronald McDonald handing out pink polka-dot rubbery CDs and, as long as there was a sweet co-operative marketing budget attached, you could amass a huge following of sycophantic PC makers before teatime. I’m not saying that HP, Toshiba, Acer et al are fools but you have to test the mettle of their commitment.
9. Thou shalt not be swayed by mutton dressed as lamb. It seems obvious to me but if Microsoft wanted credibility for the tablet PC, they should position it as Version 3 of Windows for Pens. It is an established an irrefutable fact that Microsoft (and many others) given time and venture funds can get just about anything right by the third iteration.
As an illustration, I was talking to the MIS directorate of a large girls’ school last week and she is steadfast in her position on XP. The school is running Windows 2000 on a hundred or more desktops and servers and will stay there until Service Pack 2 of XP is done and dusted. If you do a quick count on your fingers, SP2 is actually the magic number 3rd version of XP and then may be deemed (but not conclusively so) worthy of piloting. Piloting!
10. Thou shalt buy products that go with the flow, not against it. If Microsoft and friends are serious about making the tablet PC a major success the way notebooks and PDAs have become they need to throw wide the doors. Embrace at least a corner of the open source power supply. Get 10,000 developers developing for the tablet… not just the ERM and CRM heavy weights and poor old tired Corel who will sign up for just about anything these days to get in somebody else’s press pack.
I suspect that the success of the tablet will hang on converting niche appeal into ‘gotta have it’ mass-market dynamics. This will not happen if it remains a closed club. If Microsoft was the visionary innovator that it wants us to believe it is, it should do something new unique secure and revolutionary: Brazenly steal the best idea of the Linux mob (they were never coy about this as a business tactic before!) and use it to turn Tablets into the saviour of a becalmed PC market. Sigh. Little chance of that I’m afraid in the next year.
Second time lucky?
Perhaps ‘surviving’ is too strong a word…The SECOND time the tablets came down the mountain, the scribes at AT&T sayeth: ‘The NCR 3125 Notepad Computer is an 80386SL machine in a less than four-pound package only slightly larger than a standard sheet of paper. It has a high-resolution VGA screen and connections for external drives, keyboard and monitor, as well as a Hayes-compatible fax/modem.
‘Our 3125 is as intuitive as pen and paper, and that makes it a natural complement to Windows for Pens, which is so graphical and easy to use, said NCR’s Schafer. ‘Together, they extend the Windows operating system many of our customers depend on for high productivity, while liberating it from the physical constraints of the desktop.’
Nice idea but ahead of its time?