Tablets: Past, Present and Future Part II

Summary:Here is Scott Raymond's second installment in a two-part series about the Tablet’s Past, Present and Future.

(Jason Perlow) To mix up the menu, Tech Broiler will be introducing new blogger voices with select feature posts. For our inaugural installment of Tech Broiler Voices, it is my pleasure to introduce Scott Raymond, an avid PC and technology enthusiast who’s done quite a bit of legwork on all the iPad alternatives coming out from major OEMs. Here is Scott’s second installment in a two-part series about the Tablet’s Past, Present and Future. For the first installment, click here.

Whatever happened to...?

Only the Amazing Criswell can truly predict the Tablet's future.

While there are some exciting new tablet products coming to market this year, there are a couple that were well-hyped and eagerly anticipated, yet they have been canceled. There is considerable speculation that the success of the Apple iPad is what caused the developers of these devices to change their minds and decide not to compete in the market.

If the smartphone market is any indicator, that isn't true – RIM's BlackBerry line still commands the lead in market share, and Google's Android platform is rapidly catching up to Apple's popularity.

So what are these devices that were abandoned, and why were they canceled? The first, and possibly most eagerly awaited, was the HP Slate. Designed around the Intel Atom 1.6GHz Z530 chip, with 1GB of RAM and 32/64GB of storage space, it was intended to run Windows 7 Home Premium. It was very close to hitting the sweet spot I discussed in the previous article: webcam, form factor, wifi, 3G; the only shortcoming was the battery with only 5 hours of use before recharging.

As I mentioned previously, the Atom CPU is great for a netbook, but for a usable computer slate it just doesn't work. It's not powerful enough to handle some tasks at a decent speed – especially not running Windows 7 Home Premium, not with only 1GB of RAM. And without Broadcom Crystal HD video acceleration, trying to watch 1080p HD video or HD Flash video on the web would be an exercise in futility.

Forget about trying to run games on it that you would run on your Windows laptop or desktop -- no Atom-based computer can run world of Warcraft capably if at all. Also, the heat output of the CPU while it was gasping to keep up would be considerable.

A device that's supposed to be handheld would not be welcome if it was painful to actually hold. For most basic tasks it would be fine, but the wants and needs of the people seeking to use a device like this would find the limitations of the processor to be unacceptable.

There is some hope, however. It turns out that the HP acquisition of Palm may be the solution to their slate woes. You see, the Palm WebOS, much like Android, is perfectly suited to a fast, low power draw CPU typically aimed at smartphones. It looks like the HP Hurricane is on its way later this year.

What started out as a rumor is now fact: WebOS-based devices are coming. It may or may not be the rumored HP Hurricane, but this is exactly what HP needed to meet the demands of a tablet device that could directly compete with the iPad.

The other anticipated device that was canceled was the Microsoft Courier. A two-screen, journal device that had some very intriguing design features. The promotional videos that showed what the unit would be capable of were extraordinary – or would have been if the device actually existed. It was quite obvious that the videos were vaporware -- no one ever saw a prototype.

However, it turns out that there WAS a prototype of the device last year, codenamed “Codex”:

So what happened? At this point there is nothing but speculation. Microsoft didn't even acknowledge the device at first until they released the demo videos. Shortly after that Apple released the iPad, and it wasn't long after that Microsoft decided to cancel the project.

My own speculation is that Microsoft discovered that what they wanted to accomplish in that form factor could not be done with the processors and operating systems they had available to them. It's possible that Windows Phone 7 might be able to handle it, but would there be a processor capable of running it? Would battery life be an issue?

Microsoft has struggled with mobile devices since the early days of the clamshell Windows CE devices competing against the Palm Pilot, and never gained substantial market share. Maybe they decided that this time they would play it safe instead of making a big investment in something that doesn't pan out. Or they could be biding their time.

Consider a device with Windows Phone 7 combined with their Surface technology -- if only Microsoft could find a CPU that would work in a tablet form factor and it might very well be be a major contender.

Who Else Has An Alternative?

The Tablets... of the FUTURE!

At this point there's no need to rehash Android. We have already seen that there are numerous Android-based devices coming out this year. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has already acknowledged that there is a Google-branded tablet on the way; if it ends up being anything like the Nexus One smartphone, it would end up being one very sexy device and one I would definitely consider buying.

Right now there is no solid information on devices based on the upcoming Windows Phone 7 platform. Microsoft has been promoting the OS using Asus prototypes.

There is a considerable amount of interest in the OS since it first started appearing on the new generation of Zune devices. I find this to be encouraging, and yet typical of Microsoft's inability to compete in a timely fashion.

The regular reports that middle managers at Microsoft covering their own butts instead of encouraging innovation are the reason it takes years for anything good to come out of Redmond. It took them 15 years to realize that a mobile device shouldn't have the same interface as the desktop operating system.

This is why Palm ate Microsoft's lunch for a decade in the PDA and smartphone market. Even so, I would be very interested in seeing what they come up with on this platform now that they've solved their rectal/cranial inversion issue.

Samsung is still plugging away with the unsuccessful UMPC devices. Allow me to introduce to you the next generation Q1EX.

The Samsung Q1EX runs an ultra low voltage VIA Nano CPU, with 2GB of RAM, a 60GB mechanical hard drive, and Windows XP Tablet edition. Battery life compared to other devices is mediocre, and they're still clinging to legacy hardware and operating systems. This kind of thinking is why these devices, which stemmed from the Microsoft Origami UMPC project, never really took off.

One of the most surprising developments this year has been the rumor that Research In Motion, the makers of the BlackBerry smartphones, are throwing their hat into the tablet ring. This is fairly surprising, since the existing BlackBerry OS 5 isn't really geared for the tablet platform.

However, it is known that the core of Palm WebOS, the Webkit open source browser engine and also the basis of the Safari browser, will be at the heart of BlackBerry OS 6. So, this would portend to be another possible contender for the tablet market by a mature company that creates popular mobile devices, right?

Wrong.

As it turns out, according to Boy Genius Report, an often reliable source of unauthorized BlackBerry information, RIM is planning a "Companion Device" in Tablet form for their BlackBerry smartphones.

If this proves to be true, I don't know what the hell RIM is thinking by doing this. The Palm Foleo, by all rights, should have been the final nail in Palm's coffin. They were only saved (temporarily) by an infusion of cash so they could bring out the next generation of WebOS-based devices, just long enough to be bought out by HP.

Seriously? Companion device? The Palm Foleo was considered to be one of the most disastrous marketing decisions ever. I sincerely hope that co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis wake up and put a stop to that immediately. No one wants to buy TWO mobile devices to handle the task of one device.

So what else is coming? Well, Intel is about to launch a new line of ULV core processors next month that may have the capability of revolutionizing the tablet market.

If these chips are capable of running cool and have extremely low power draw, they could actually enable the creating of tablet devices capable of running a full-blown OS like Linux or Windows 7 without the drawbacks of running them on a pokey netbook device based on an Atom processor.

The AMD Athlon Neo chips are more powerful, but they generate a considerable amount of heat and draw more power than an Intel chip. Currently the only information we have concerning this new line of CPUs is that Asus plans on developing a tablet using them, running Windows 7.

I would consider this to be an unsubstantiated rumor, at best. Also, even though the CPU should run cool and drain less battery life, it will likely be more expensive than devices based on the NVIDIA Tegra 2 chip. Battery life will trade off with performance, of course. But who wouldn't want a cool-running tablet running Windows 7 Ultimate with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD hard drive?

What You Need vs. What You Want

The question to ask yourself now is “What do I need?” Actually, if you are flush with capital, you don't need to ask yourself that question. If you want a tablet right now, buy the iPad. Keep in mind, however, that it doesn't multi-task, it doesn't have a camera, it can't do flash so many websites on the Internet are inaccessible.

But at least the iPad has freedom from porn -- although many folks, myself included, consider it to be freedom from choice. That being said, it's still a pretty nifty device. I'm going to wait a while and see what comes out this year.

But what happens if you buy a device now, and then feel like you made a mistake later? Keep in mind that the market is fickle and rapidly changing. I bought a new laptop a month ago, and right after I did the price dropped $100. You will never win, because everything keeps changing.

So accept that the market is outside of your control. Make a list of the things you would use a tablet device for, and what features you require/desire. Then be happy with your choice. Sometimes you see something better come out and you still have time to return or exchange your purchase. If not, well, that's what ebay is for. Sell the device to someone that wants it and get the one that fits your needs.

Thanks for indulging me down a trip towards Tablet memory lane and toward the Tablet's future. Have I left any new and notable devices out? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Operating Systems, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Software, Tablets, Windows

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