Slate Engine Time (Again)

Summary:If you were here in Las Vegas for CES, you’d think that the slate format tablet PC was here to save the consumer electronics industry.Everyone has one – Steve Ballmer showed off HP’s Windows 7 offering in his opening keynote, while Dell unveiled a prototype 5” smartbook slate running a variant of Android.

If you were here in Las Vegas for CES, you’d think that the slate format tablet PC was here to save the consumer electronics industry.

Everyone has one – Steve Ballmer showed off HP’s Windows 7 offering in his opening keynote, while Dell unveiled a prototype 5” smartbook slate running a variant of Android. They’re not the only slate devices (or rumours of devices) at CES. Even the normally conservative Lenovo has shown off a hybrid notebook/slate running two different operating systems.

It’s a Pre-Cambrian explosion of slates, with as many sizes as there are LCD or e-Paper screens. There are slates for e-books, dual screen Android e-Paper devices with a mix of different size LEDs, and then a whole range of smartbook devices with ARM processors, and then there are the Intel-powered devices, using low power Atom systems. They’re all colours, all shapes, and all sizes, intended for everyone from the stay-at-home mother to the executive pulling together a portfolio of documents. Some devices are aimed at very clear markets, while others are designed to adapt to whatever their users want.

At least that’s the hype.

In reality slates and other tablet devices have been around a long time. I owned my first slate-like device back in the 90s, with the Apple Newton. I even spent some time using a Pen Windows-based device, a large screen tablet with a Windows 3.11-based touch OS. It turns out that tablet-format devices have been around almost as long as the PC itself.

Windows XP Tablet edition unleashed a whole range of tablet devices, with active digitisers giving them smooth handwriting recognition and easy pen-based navigation. They weren’t touch-based devices, they need pens to work, and were often the size of a large folio. My first Windows tablet was a HP Compaq TC1000, with a removable keyboard that left the slate light and easy to use on the road. I’ve kept on using Tablet PCs since then – they’re an ideal tool for technology journalists, especially when combined with software like OneNote. Microsoft hasn’t neglected the Tablet PC, with tablet tools and features part of the default Windows 7 installation.

My current tablet, an HP 2710p convertible device, is now on its third OS, having transitioned from XP to Vista to Windows 7. It’s also gained new features and capabilities with each release. Windows Tablet PCs have remained a niche product, as active digitisers add to hardware costs. Even so, they work well, and have plenty of compelling features. The latest generation of devices mix touch and pen, using Windows 7’s built-in touch features to simplify the user interface – and keep expensive pens from being lost or broken when all you want to do is open a menu. Pens are good for only one thing, and that’s writing…

Things took a step backwards with the Origami concept. The idea was excellent, a consumer slate that was a go anywhere device, intended to be a companion for desktop PCs. Sadly the hype did not match the reality. Microsoft’s slim concept became bulky Ultra Mobile PCs. The UMPC didn’t have much market impact, and its PC companion role was subsumed by the more popular netbook.

Some became MIDs, Mobile Internet Devices, but the web on a small screen just didn’t catch on, until Apple took the open WebKit and made it the basis of its mobile browser for its pocket tablets, the iPhone and the iPod Touch. The latest large screen smartphones are just another tablet, whether they're the Nexus One or the HTC HD2.

So here we are in 2010, with 15 plus years of tablet technology behind us. Suddenly, or so it seems, the tablet is desirable again.

There’s a saying “steam engine time”. When everything is ready, the technology you’ve been expecting appears, seemingly from nowhere. James Watt may have been credited with the invention of the steam engine, but his work built on the work of generations of iron workers, of scientists, and of all those un-recorded steam engines that just didn’t quite make it.

That’s the story of the tablet PC in a nutshell. If Apple unveils a slate, or if HP’s device becomes a success, we’ll put it all down to the designers and marketeers of that one device. We’ll ignore all the slates that arrived at the same time (just like we ignore all the steam engines that arrived in the 1700s), and we’ll certainly ignore all the devices that came before. As valuable as their contribution to the world of tablet computing has been, they’ll be consigned to the dustbin of history – or possibly eBay.

But hey, that’s how it always happens…


Topics: Windows


Born on the Channel Island of Jersey, Simon moved to the UK to attend the University of Bath where he studied electrical and electronic engineering. Since then a varied career has included being part of the team building the world's first solid state 30KW HF radio transmitter, writing electromagnetic modelling software for railguns, and t... Full Bio


Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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