HP's Slate was an Ugly Baby with Windows 7

HP's Slate was an Ugly Baby with Windows 7

Summary: Hewlett-Packard purchased Palm for one reason: compared to iPad, Windows 7 made their Slate look like an Ugly Baby.

TOPICS: Hewlett-Packard

Hewlett-Packard purchased Palm for one reason: compared to iPad, Windows 7 made their Slate look like an Ugly Baby. (Baby photo from VintagePixels.com)

There's been quite a bit of speculation lately about why HP, which was never really considered to be a serious Palm suitor by the digital weberati decided to consummate a marriage to the tune of $1.2 billion with the ailing smartphone vendor.

My friend and colleague David Gewirtz at ZDNet Government talks about the sordid, painful history of Palm as a company and what the possible value proposition -- if any -- remains with Palm's assets for Hewlett-Packard. He doesn't seem to think there's much there to salvage or understand the logic behind the purchase, but I'm going to try to make some sense of the entire thing.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Let us start with a story of two tablet computers: The HP Slate and the iPad.

The road towards Palm for Hewlett-Packard probably started about a year ago, when the first rumors of an Apple Tablet began to emerge from the nether regions of Silicon Valley. Not to be outmaneuvered by Apple in the consumer space, HP almost certainly began developing the current Slate hardware on a crash program, believing they could have a compelling product ready to sell in early 2010.

Taking stock of the technologies that HP had available, the company quickly decided to base its tablet on an the Intel Atom, not unlike the core of what exists in their existing netbook product line.

This decision to re-use netbook x86 technology in the Slate would allow the company to accelerate development without having to design an entirely new hardware platform for their tablet, and would give them the ability to run a wide range of software on the device without resorting to specialized embedded ARM-based designs.

After all, HP had done ARM-based products before, such as their early Jornada Windows CE-based "HPC Pros", and they failed miserably. That business, as well as the labs and development for those devices, had long been shuttered.

Fast forward to January 6, 2010. HP enlists Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to show off their Slate design at the Consumer Electronics Show, wowing the crowd with its technology and its full-blown Windows 7 OS. Had that been the only significant tablet announcement in 2010, things may have been peachy.

Three weeks later, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announces the iPad. And then everything changed.

Suddenly, compared to the iPad, the HP Slate is starting to look downright clunky. The Slate, sporting a WSVGA display with a 1.6Ghz Intel chip and 5 hours of total battery life per charge, is completely upstaged by the much more agile Apple iPad, with 10 hours of battery life, a higher resolution XGA screen and ultra-responsive and low-power A4 custom ARMv8-based System on a Chip (SoC) silicon.

Internal HP Slate pre-launch PowerPoint slide detailing the iPad "Threat". (Source: AOL/Engadget)

As if the sleeker and more innovative hardware wasn't a knockout punch in and of itself, the efficient iPhone OS on the iPad -- given a meager 256MB of main memory -- still manages to run circles around Windows 7, which due to its full PC roots is highly resource constrained in a whopping 1GB RAM.

To add insult to injury, the Slate's Wireless-G 54Mb networking is nearly six times slower and far less powerful in terms of signal strength than iPad's 300Mb Wireless-N when running in native modes.

Sure, the Slate has two built-in cameras, USB ports and SD expansion, which the iPad lacks, but compared to Apple's software ecosystem, incredible sex appeal and superior marketing savvy, they might as well not even be there.

And with 2,500+ optimized apps at launch, along with 150,000 apps for iPhone in the App Store, accompanied by a massive library of digital media from iTunes which can be installed with a simple click of a button, Windows 7 -- Microsoft's flagship OS for PCs -- very much starts to look like chopped liver as a tablet contender.

As evidenced by the leaked pre-launch PowerPoint slide above, HP knew that compared to the iPad, their baby was ugly.

What to do, what to do.

HP probably thought they could launch the Slate as-is, hoping to attract the PC geek market segment to the device. They may very well still, in order to make some short term profits. But long term, Windows 7 wasn't going to cut it, and they knew it. And they weren't about to jump into the Windows Phone 7 fray and port/adapt an unreleased, unproven embedded OS to hardware they already developed.

HP could port Google's Android to the x86 tablet, but then there would almost certainly be developer and application porting issues when dealing with CPU architecture differences -- Android was designed to run on ARM-based systems, like the iPad.

And after its PC arch enemy, Dell Computer, announced its upcoming fleet of ARM-based Android devices, it knew it had to do something to differentiate -- especially after HTC, one of the prime manufacturers of Android phones had just been dinged by Apple with a lawsuit.

What do you do with a lemon? You make lemonade. And Palm was the sugar that HP needed, at the price it was willing to pay, in order to solve that problem on its Slate.

The smartphone stuff was just a bonus, although I'm not entirely convinced HP is ever going to be a serious contender in the smartphone marketplace with WebOS. It's too much of an uphill battle and the market is completely saturated. As I have said before, Darwinism will eliminate the weaker players in the smartphone ecosystem soon enough.

With the acquisition also HP inherits Palm's developers, which at this point, unlike those who are reaping the benefits of Android and iPhone OS have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Unlike Android, WebOS doesn't have the downside of already having a huge developer ecosystem which would revolt if they had to port their applications over to the new x86 architecture and run a totally separate development environment for it.

As it turns out, and quite fortunate for HP, the WebOS UI and API stack -- which uses Linux as its kernel and driver core and is already netbook compatible -- can be ported to x86 quite easily.

The existing WebOS application base of 1500+ programs, while not huge, will run pretty much as-is with some simple re-packaging and screen optimization, because the apps are all written in the lingua franca of the Web, HTML and Javascript, and are completely CPU platform neutral.

This means that the existing Slate design can be used as transitional hardware if HP eventually decides it wants to join the less power-hungry ARM tablet world along with Dell and Apple, without significantly disrupting its developer base.

And unlike Windows 7, which requires manual software installations just like a PC, Palm has an App Catalog, much like Android's Market or Apple's App Store, which will allow applications to install with a simple click of a button.

Provided that HP can figure out how to entice developers to build WebOS tablet apps, the agile and multi-tasking WebOS with its innovative UI might actually make some headway versus the iPad.

And unlike Windows 7, which is stressed on 1GB of RAM on a 1.6Ghz Atom, the hardware specs on the Slate are actually quite generous for WebOS to run in, which was designed to operate speedily in 25 percent of the device's memory on the original 256MB Palm Pre, with only a 600Mhz ARM.

On the Slate, WebOS should easily match performance of the iPad, and with its apps written with open Web standards, should allow for rapid application development if HP manages not to screw up a huge opportunity and is able improve Palm's developer program.

Given some accelerated development, and some fancy footwork on integrating Palm into HP's corporate culture, we may very well see a WebOS-powered derivative of the Slate by Fall of 2010.

And the ugly Windows 7 baby will become just a distant memory.

Disclaimer: I work for IBM, Hewlett-Packard's largest competitor in the enterprise computing and technology consulting industries. IBM sold its Personal Computer division to Lenovo in 2004, no longer has a significant stake in the company, and no longer competes with HP in that industry or currently sells retail consumer electronics products.

The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Topic: Hewlett-Packard


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • The same ol' Linux ranting again?

    Come on now, what's up with this lip stick over WebOS?

    Even Google, the biggest "HTML5 is god and more" advocate, is skipping an H5 based ChromeOS and using Android instead to push their own CooglePad, which means HP could also save that 1.2B and use Android instead if they don't like Win7 in their slate. Android could fit in an X86 architecture easily.
    • That's like dinosaurs complaining about...

      ...the same ol' mammal ranting again.

      A few decades ago, a sci-fi author named Keith Laumer proposed "Crmblznski's Limit:"

      "That's where it says if you go beyond a certain
      point with complications, you blow your transistors..."

      Windows has reached that point--it has no where to go but down.
      Henry Miller
      • Another Laumer fan!

        Just remember "Is is not is not not".
        • And not-is is not is-not. (nt)

          Henry Miller
  • I think that HP will switch to Arm for the processor. With the engineers at

    Palm, they could have an Arm based device ready
    very quickly, and it would be faster, use less
    power, generate less heat, be cheaper to
    manufacture, etc. If they want to embarrass
    themselves with a Win7 Atom based tablet for
    some short term profits, they can go for it.
    Better wait for a WebOS Arm based tablet though.
    • Not so sure about cheaper

      HP has huge amounts of buying power with Intel. They get massive Atom quantity pricing, and they already have the netbook tooling in their manufacturing facilities.

      They could certainly go in the ARM direction but then they'd need to start establishing better relationships with companies like HTC which would probably end up contract manufacturing the device as they did with the iPaqs, HP doesn't really deal with Qualcomm or TI or Freescale today.
      • It is not just the price of the chip. You also have to pay for bigger

        batteries, bigger power supply, to get rid of
        the heat, etc. A super efficient Arm with a
        super efficient OS (WebOS) makes cheaper, and at
        the same time sexier computer.
        • HP has two options really

          1) Continue to develop the Slate design using
          Intel Atom technology and working closely with
          Intel to simplify the support electronics and
          minimize power usage. Launch a variant of the
          Slate with WebOS in 6 months with an initial go
          to market.

          2) To abandon the current reference design and
          move to ARM. However this would probably require
          a contract outsourcing to a company like HTC,
          which would build and design the hardware, using
          HP's branding, like what was done with the iPaQ.

          I think a case could be made for either. They
          could also do both -- do step 1 as interim and
          initial offering and in parallel, work on step
          • If the Atom design is far enough along, I could see two tracks

            But, if they release a dud Atom device that
            makes them the laughing stock compared to iPad,
            that will make it impossible to get anybody
            interested in an HP tablet again. I think there
            were more problems with the slate than Win7.
          • Not really

            The Atom n450 is superior to the n270 in both battery life and performance. Much to my surprise it was pretty happy running Win7 Pro in 1GB. I get about 5.5 hours hammering on the thing with streaming video. So I can see 8 hours with an Atom and WebOS, which brings you darn close to the iPad.

            I think Android would be a better bet, but WebOS should be fine. Ubuntu Netbook Remix gives me about 6.5 hours, so 8 hours or more is very feasible.
        • How so?

          Have you seen that cruddy apps that are available for WebOS? It's a laughing stock really.
          The one and only, Cylon Centurion
          • Saying it won't make it so. The laughing stock is MS trying to shoe horn

            Windows 7 into a tablet.
          • It's entirely possible

            Seemed to run just fine when Steve demoed it back at CES.
            The one and only, Cylon Centurion
          • "seemed" to run fine in a Demo??!! Well, iPad does more than "run fine", it

            performs magnificently, at the same time being
            thin, light, cool to the touch, and giving over
            10 hours battery life.
      • Not so sure about cheaper - Intel Strategy

        We shouldnt forget that Intel wants to be in this market as well. They are trying to come out with solutions that match and beat ARM. I am sure HP could leverage this as well. Afterall how difficult is it for someone like Intel to enter a market if it really put its head to it!
        • Yes, Intel WILL try to get into the market. But, HP can not afford to wait.

          They need a cheaper, lighter, thinner, long
          battery life tabled, NOW.
          • Intel

            Will almost certainly purchase an ARM player,
            probably Marvell, which incidentally, they
            manufacture under contract. Marvell used to be
            Intel XScale.
          • I think that Intel has to license the Atom core to other system-on-a-chip

            manufacturers, and at the same time close the
            power gap with Arm. But, I do not see Intel ever
            being able to completely close the power gap
            because of the overhead and complexity of the
            x86 instruction set. I also do not see Intel
            going back to manufacturing Arm, as there is not
            so much differentiation, and Intel does not like
            the margins in that kind of a world.
          • Agreed.

            They can move more components into the Atom core
            to turn it into a SoC with integrated
            controllers, but the legacy x86 overhead with
            all those transistors to provide backwards
            compatability is gonna nail them.

            Frankly.. I would try to recoup my investment in
            something like the Itanium architecture, as
            nutty as that sounds, and try to make it work in
            low power mode with a scaled down design. That,
            or buy Marvell out and evolve their SoC designs.
          • Overhead of the x86 ISA?

            What overhead?

            x86 has a BIG benefit over ARM - x86 has a FAR higher code density vs. ARM (and most other RISC ISA's). This allows x86 CPU's to read multiple instructions per memory read than ARM does.

            This is why ARM defined THUMB and THUMB2 which are subsets of the full ARM ISA compressed into smaller bit-patterns requiring less space to store and access them.

            THUMB2 is required in order to implement an OS due to THUMB v1's lack of certain important instructions requiring the OS to constantly switch between ARM and THUMB ISA's.

            Even THUMB2 doesn't offer code density that's as good as x86 code.

            Where x86 offers challenges is in decoding its more variable instructions. This requires more complex logic which means more transisters. However, Intel has the upper-hand here with its world-leading fabrication technologies potentially allowing it to drop core sizes to the point where their CPU's start to approach ARM's increasing power requirements.

            ARM has major benefits in the relative simplicity of its cores requiring a lot less logic, but in doing so, they forego a lot of performance. There's a reason that iPads and iPhones offer little limited multi-tasking: offering full un-gated multitasking would typically result in your iPhone/iPad crawling to a halt. ARM's answer to this is to increase processing horsepower by increasing frequencies and increasing the number of cores per CPU, both of which increase poower demands considerably.

            This game MOST CERTAINLY is not over yet - there's still A LOT to play for in this space.