Who'll keep taking Windows Tablets in the iPad era?
BillG's 2001 proto-fondleslab that failed
Andrew's Review Notes I have a lot of sympathy for people who steal their technology from the hearse, just as its driving through the gates of the great technology knackers' yard.
While it is obligatory to be savoir faire with the latest in design and innovation, when it comes to my personal spending I'm right there with the laggards, on the extreme right of the Technology Adoption Lifecycle.
You've heard of Early Adopters, and maybe Happy Hour Adopters. I'm a Last Orders Adopter. I made good use of a Palm long after everyone else had sold theirs. I used OS/2 when it was well and truly doomed; BeOS when it had secretly been de-emphasised by Be Inc in favour of kitchen appliances – the dot.com-version of the fondleslab.
I waited until the third iteration of the iPhone to leap in. I got into Ubuntu on laptops just before everyone decided "Good Christ, this megalomaniac has destroyed everything I like about my favourite Linux distro. Bye!"
There are many advantages to being a Laggard: the platform is usually as cheap as chips, and the bugs will have been debugged. It will probably play nicely with everything else. And you avoid all the pains of the early adopters.
I recall developing on what was DEC's first Alpha NT Workstation, when only a couple of dozen were in the UK. Alpha was brand new – and extremely sexy. And NT was so much part of the future every UNIX guru was privately learning to get a handle on the new system. Alas the Alpha didn't always boot – something to do with the keyboard driver, I recall.
And sometimes as an early adopter you just drive down a dead end. When I ditched the Psion for a Nokia Communicator in 2001 I lost the ability to type notes quickly, traded a great diary for a lousy one, and got a brick in exchange. It was a terrible decision – one really based on faith.
Now I see the same faith expressed by people who have begun to store their password files on Dropbox, and boast about how their passwords are always available thanks to The Cloud, and how this is the future, and we should all get with it. Er, good luck, guys ...
So I have some sympathies with the Windows Tablet community and I marvel at how enthusiastic and helpful they still are. It buzzes away at sites like TabletPCReview. Well, mostly it is TabletPC Review.
The Windows Tablet was one of two Big Ideas that Bill Gates spawned in Microsoft's world domination era, from the mid 90s on. The great Bill idea was to put a database in Windows and build the file system on top.
That was actually a great idea – as you old PICK and AS/400 veterans know – and with Longhorn in 2001 Microsoft set to work. But it proved so hard to implement, Microsoft had to throw it all away and start on (what became known as) Vista from scratch. I don't think that will ever be back – there's so much sunk in the architecture as it is. And who, exactly, complains?
Tablet PCs were Bill's other big idea. By 2007, predicted the great man, Tablet PCs would become "the most popular form of PC ".
Dirty blond ambition
I suppose he got one thing right. Thanks to the web, and Wi-Fi, more of us would be doing leisure-media-consumption things and would want a computer that is more compatible with slouching horizontal on a sofa eating an enormous bag of Doritos.
"These are my people! Give them Tablets!" thought Gates. Well, now we do, and he was undoubtedly on the money. Apple still can't decide what its Fondleslab is good at, but people are absolutely overjoyed with them.
It has captured over $20bn of revenue almost overnight – how much this takes a chunk out of the laptop/netbook market and how much is new discretionary spending, I'm not sure, probably a bit of both. But it highlights a demand that has been met.
However Bill's idea of tablets was staggeringly lacking in ambition. Although Redmond did show a reference design that looks very much like a fondleslab today (no keyboard), OEMs really weren't interested. And Microsoft couldn't push them.
It's fascinating to see, reading back at that story from 2001, the extent of Microsoft's platform aspirations for this new platform. I thought this bit, related by Mr Lettice, was fascinating:
"The laxity of a related requirement indicates that Microsoft isn't demanding things that portables can't do already. Tablet PCs should be able to survive in suspend mode, ie, power still going to memory, for three hours. This is not onerous by the standards of current notebooks, but does beg questions about what kind of tablet PC will be able to last the whole day, and how much of that time it's going to have to spend in hibernate mode in order to do so."
Gates decided tablets had to be tablet PCs; they didn't need a new OS, but the old OS with new bits grafted on for pen input and screen orientation. They could suffer all the power consumption handicaps of a real Windows laptop – and bulk.
Somehow the OEMs weren't fully behind it, and launched tablets as a hedge. They'd argue that if you didn't want to run it in tablet mode, it was still a real fully functional laptop. So the BoM for tablets started the same as for a laptops then mushroomed to accommodate the special hinge, the digitiser, the stylus, and so on... The tablets that launched a year later in 2002 were very expensive indeed.
"Cool portables that come with a free pen," we thought .
This week I reviewed the Lenovo X220T . Lenovo is one of very few manufacturers left flogging the Tablet PC in the fondleslab era. Just as in 2002, it was a Frankenstein mix of very old technology and new technology trying to pull the anachronisms out of the swamp.
Essentially, it's a rock solid ThinkPad that's been extended to be a tablet too, and is burdened with exactly those handicaps of the first generation. I didn't gain any pleasure or productive gains from having pen input.
I resented the additional bulk, and random driver issues, and having to drill through lots of dialogs to turn on things like "finger input mode". And most of all, I massively resented how the ThinkPad backlight was missing – even though the key sticker told me it was.
So the Microsoft Tablet is on its last legs, but this is one dead end I won't be chasing down on eBay. Now Microsoft, like every other operator, sees an exploding market owned entirely by Apple.
It's making a much nicer skin for Windows than it ever achieved with Tablet Pen additions. It's porting Windows to ARM, too. All of this strongly indicates Microsoft's next tablets will run a
crippled cut-down er, Cloudy Windows Lite, something finally far more appropriate.
I can't see Redmond buggering it up this time, but you never know. ®