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Apple v. Microsoft and HP, round 2

Remember Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corporation? That case was a big deal back in 1994. Apple lost that round decisively, but now, 16 years later, it's time for a rematch between Apple and its archrivals Microsoft and HP. This time the battle is between the HP Slate and the iPad. So who has the upper hand?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor on

Remember Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corporation? That case was a big deal back in 1994. The Mac OS and Windows were still in their infancy, and Apple lost decisively, with a Federal appellate court deciding that Microsoft had not infringed on Apple’s copyrighted “look and feel” of the Mac OS.

It was probably the single darkest hour in Apple’s history. Two years later, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and a year after that Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple to keep it from going under.

I thought back to that decision today when I saw the latest video of HP’s forthcoming Slate, the small Tablet PC that made its debut in January at CES. Most people don’t remember that HP was a co-defendant with Microsoft in that long-ago lawsuit. The alleged offense (dismissed on virtually all counts) was copyright infringement on the part of HP’s NewWave operating environment, a shell for Windows 3.1. And now, 16 years later, HP is building an alternate shell for its new slate PC, to run on top of Windows 7, a direct competitor to the iPad. So is this a rerun, a remake, or a sequel?

Today’s video is a fascinating sneak peek at HP’s latest attempt to add its own interface on top of Windows. Despite being only 30 seconds long, the video rolls out a laundry list of features that differentiates the new HP Slate, clearly, from the iPad.

For starters, the new device has two cameras—a webcam facing the user, a still/video camera facing out. You can shoot videos and upload them to Facebook, or have a Skype video conversation. Either action is simply impossible on a first-generation iPad.

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It supports third-party apps, including Firefox, without forcing you to pick from a list of approved apps in an app store.

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And HP's Slate has the kind of expansion options that an iPad doesn’t have, such as a slot for SD memory cards and a USB adapter. In the video, HP uses that USB port, ironically, to connect a device using Apple's trademark white USB cable, with iTunes running on the Slate beneath it.

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In short, it's a PC. But is all that enough to give the Microsoft/HP tag team a fighting chance against a strong, confident Apple?

An awful lot has changed since 1994. Apple’s name, for starters (they dropped the Computers part a couple years ago). Apple’s management was inept in 1994 and is pure genius today. And then there’s the balance of power. That 1994 loss sent Apple into a downward spiral and set Microsoft up for its defeat in U.S. v Microsoft seven years later. Today, Apple has all the momentum, with a certified mega-hit in the iPhone and a promising start for the iPad.

The real question is whether people still want to choose a full-powered PC in a Tablet format, with all the power and problems that go along with it. Will they be spoiled by the pristine experience of the iPad, enough to overlook its limitations?

HP’s sneak peek today was a nice bit of guerrilla marketing. But no one’s going to pay for a video clip. HP and Microsoft have to deliver the goods, in time for this holiday season.

Good luck with that.

Update: Engadget has a slide purportedly showing detailed specs for the HP Slate, compared directly with the iPad.

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