ExoPC's Slate is probably as good as Windows 7 tablets are likely to get. But that doesn't ensure consumer success.
Over the holidays, during my trip to Florida I alluded to bringing another "Unproven houseguest" with me in addition to Google's Cr-48 netbook. Stuffed in my backpack in bubble wrap was ExoPC's Windows 7 Slate, one of the first products of its kind to hit the consumer market.
ExoPC, a mobile technology firm based in Canada, is an interesting company because essentially they have more of a software developer spin than being an actual hardware producing company. Rather than design Windows 7 tablet hardware, like an Asus or even an HP, they have concentrated their efforts on user interface design which they intend to license to Windows 7 tablet manufacturers.
Their first product is essentially a testbed and developer platform and to generate interest in their UI.
Their user interface, which launches as an application at startup within Windows 7, resembles something of a "Connect Four" game board layout -- application launch icons appear as circles that are punched through a matrix that partially obscures the background graphic. Rather than try to explain further what this looks like, it's probably better that I show you a screenshot:
ExoPC has released a SDK which allows independent software developers to plug into their UI, which includes a curated app store. They've given developers a lot of leeway as to what languages they can program in -- for all practical purposes, this is full-blown Windows, but with a cool shell.
It has an integrated web browser (which is essentially Internet Explorer's engine displayed within their UI) as well as clearly placed navigation icons, including the ability to exit directly into the traditional Windows 7 user interface.
While ExoPC is a Canadian firm, the slate hardware itself is produced by Pegatron, based out of China. Short of some minor aesthetic differences, and with 2GB of RAM instead of 1GB and a faster SSD, It's nearly identical in design and hardware specification to the Neofonie WeTab, which is a Linux-based tablet sold in Germany.
Here are the raw hardware specifications, for those of you that are interested:
Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium, 32-bit Edition
UI Layer:ExoPC UI Layer (use of the UI layer is optional, it functions as a standard Windows program)
Other Preinstalled Software:EXOPC Touchscreen Keyboard
Microsoft .NET Framework 4.0
Microsoft Silverlight Runtime for IE
Macromedia Flash Player 10.1
Rescue Media Creation Utility
External Power Supply:
Delta Electronics, Inc. ADP-40PH AB
Dimensions: 85mm x 33mm x 25mm (3.4" x 1.3" x 1.0")
Weight: 99 gm (3.5 oz)
Input: 100-240V, 50-60Hz
Output: 19V, 2.1A
295 x 194 x 14.0 mm (11.6" x 7.7" x 0.55")
First, let's get the obvious comparisons out of the way. If you're used to an iPad, this tablet is bigger and considerably heavier. It's a full 1.5" wider and without a case also weighs 35 oz, when compared with the naked iPad's 26 oz.
Secondly, unlike the iPad, this device actually generates a significant amount of heat because it is Intel x86-based, and has ventilation ports which have explicit labeling which instructs you not to block them. In other words, Don't Hold It Wrong.
Onto the good stuff. For a Windows 7 device that is essentially netbook hardware on steroids, it runs pretty fast. Windows applications load quickly and are responsive. Provided you have USB-based installation media or download executables off the Wi-Fi connection, you can install any Windows application you want. This is, after all, Windows.
This has huge potential for any business or individual that wants to mobilize existing Windows applications, such as customers in the transportation industry or for restaurants and retail stores that use Windows-based Point-of-Sale systems or inventory management.
There are tons of legacy Windows applications not to mention full-blown PC-targeted Intranet web sites that use Flash, Flex, ActiveX, .NET, you name it, which currently cannot run on iPads and Android devices.
There's only one problem with this, and it's that the ExoPC Slate is targeted as a consumer device. And consumers now expect something like an iPad or an Android tablet. This doesn't behave anything like one and even with tons of development effort thrown at it, it probably never will.
This is a full-blown Personal Computer inside a tablet casing. And unlike something like an iPad, it has the same performance characteristics of a mobile PC or a laptop -- only about 4 to 5 hours of battery life.
In terms of my personal experiences with the device, I actually found the most utility with it when leaving ExoPC's pretty UI and using it as a straightforward Windows 7 tablet device. There's simply just not enough applications on their web store to go around yet, and quite frankly, the ExoPC UI just chews up more resources and the system runs a bit sluggish with it running.
I could certainly see it running faster if their UI completely replaced the Windows 7 shell rather than run on top of it as an app -- but that would also decrease the utility of the device. If there was some way to quiesce the Windows 7 shell processes and toggle between the shells, that might be a solution for the future, but right now, the ExoPC UI runs as an application process while everything else underneath is running.
When you use the regular Windows 7 shell on this tablet, you begin to realize that this is not something that is going to resonate with most consumers. The classic shell is just not meant to be used with a touchscreen -- it doesn't properly support multitouch and classic Windows applications aren't properly enabled for it, so it doesn't feel like a natural experience like when using an iPad or even an Android device.
With Windows 7 on a tablet, It feels like you are manipulating a normal Windows PC with your fingers. Touch support is bolted on rather than designed with the OS from the ground up, such as with iOS or Android. Moving application windows around is relatively easy, but smaller UI elements and icons can be very difficult to interact with, such as processes/applets running in the Windows 7 dock.
Case in point, when you use applications that are not multi-touch enabled, you can't scroll the page around just by dragging your fingers across the screen, you actually have to touch the scrollbars just as if you would do with a mouse on a real PC.
This is a kludge, and if you're used to an iPad or even played with one casually, it's not going to make you happy. In the ExoPC UI, and also in Internet Explorer 9, you can pinch to zoom and scroll with your fingers with the integrated browser engine, but it's nowhere near as responsive or as fluid as an iPad, theres a noticeable delay on zooming.
[EDIT:Microsoft offers a Touch Pack for download, a suite of sample applications for Windows 7 touch-enabled devices, which showcase how multitouch can be used on the OS.]
There's also the issue of enabling Windows applications to properly take virtual keyboard input properly. One of the first apps I installed was Google's Chrome browser, since it's the one that I prefer using now on Linux and Windows as it fully supports syncing of my bookmarks and all my plugins and is one of the most secure browsers you can use.
Chrome runs, and it runsfast, but the problem is that as it is isolated in its own process, there are many instances when you touch areas to accept input that would normally trigger the Windows 7 touch keyboard to pop up and nothing happens at all.
Instead, you have to go to the Start Menu, choose "On-Screen Keyboard" -- an alternate keyboard from the one that automatically pops up -- and enter your text. I don't think I need to explain just how frustrating that is.
[EDIT:After discussing this with ExoPC, I found out that to make Chrome work better on Windows 7 tablets, you need to install the ChromeTouch extension. Zoom and pan gestures work, but as with IE9, it's not super-fluid as with an iPad, and there are still input issues with the virtual keyboard. To fix that, you apparently also need TipPopper, another Chrome extension.]
The ExoPC company has absolutely built a cool UI, and this is a cool computer. But as I learned when I was working as a developer liaison at Sharp Electronics during the launch of the Zaurus Linux PDA back in 2002-2004, consumers didn't necessarily want mobile touchscreen handheld computers, they wanted devices that are easy to use.
The Zaurus failed miserably in the consumer marketplace in the United States, even though the early-adopting Japanese loved it, because American consumers were used to PalmPilots (The PDA market leader at the time) which were easy to use and had excellent sync capabilities.
While my personal challenge was getting mass-market apps written by developers, the real problem was that consumers just HATED the thing, despite the fact that the Zaurus was so much more powerful and could run real apps.
The PalmPilot was cheap and it was faster, with a much longer battery life, with a huge library of apps written for it. Does this sound familiar?
Although the Zaurus flopped in retail, what we found out was that verticals, not consumers, ended up buying thousands of Zauruses, such as a large transportation and shipping company that operated cargo trains which was able to replace its expensive ($2000+) field service laptops for programming railroad track controllers with a cheap $500 handheld.
I expect to see a similar situation evolve with Windows 7 Slates and the ExoPC UI -- Consumers cold, but Verticals and Enterprise hot.
Will the ExoPC and Windows 7 Slates be a consumer failure but become a Vertical and Enterprise success? Talk Back and Let Me Know.