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December 16, 2010

The tablet wars: background and outlook

This whole tablet thing is really interesting.

Despite getting soundly trashed by a good number of industry experts when the iPad was first announced by Steve Jobs on January 27, 2010, Apple ended up selling about ten million of them in 2010, and the same experts now predict that a lot more will be sold in the coming years. Everyone is scrambling to also have a tablet. Tablets are hot, tablets will demolish the netbook market, tablets will eat into notebook sales, Microsoft will gag and wither over having blown it with tablets, and so on and so on.

So let's take a look at what's really happening. First, tablets are not new. I often see references in the tech press on how Microsoft invented tablets back in 2001 when they introduced the Tablet PC. That's not true, of course. Tablets go back at least another decade, and more if you count such concepts as the Apple "Knowledge Navigator" that was introduced in 1987, or earlier yet, Alan Kay's DynaBook of 1968. What's also mostly forgotten is that almost 20 years ago, the computing world was all hyped up over tablet computers that you could write on, slates that were sort of like "smart paper." None other than Microsoft's own GM of their Pen Computing Group stated that "the impact of pens on computing will be far greater than the mouse," and that was in November of 1991.

See, back then, the buzz was building of pen computing as the next big thing, and pen computers were nothing other than tablets. Microsoft felt the heat because GO Corporation got a lot of press for its PenPoint OS that, unlike Windows, was totally designed for pens. GO released PenPoint in 1992, a company named Momenta released its own tablet interface, and a good number of tablet computers chose PenPoint, including the first IBM ThinkPad (yes, almost two decades before pundits made fun of the term "iPad," there was the ThinkPad, and later the WinPad). Microsoft battled back with Windows for Pen Computing, a version of Windows 3.1 that added a layer of pen functionality. An OS war took place in the early 1990s on such earlier tablets as the NCR NotePad, the Samsung PenMaster, the Fujitsu Point, the Toshiba DynaPad, as well as pen computers made by GRiD (courtesy of Jeff Hawkins who later founded Palm) and a gaggle of long-forgottens such as Dauphin, TelePAD, Tusk, and several others.

Microsoft won that war back in the early 90s, and they did it the way they always do it, by sheer, brute force. Windows for Pen Computing outmuscled PenPoint on the major platforms via some highly publicized sales, but it was a Pyrrhic victory as tablets went nowhere, in part because Windows just wasn't suitable for tablets and in part because the hype was about (underperforming) handwriting recognition as much as it was about tablets. One by one, the majors dropped out -- NCR, Compaq, Toshiba, IBM, NEC. Some hung in there long enough to see the complex and limited pen version of Windows 95, but tablets were done for the 90s. When Palm showed that pens could actually be quite useful, Microsoft launched Windows CE, but the small CE-based handhelds built by all the major Windows licensees were just too limited to excite anyone.

But those early tablet efforts were not entirely wasted. A small but resilient tablet computer industry survived and kept developing specialized tablet solutions for vertical market clients.

The next big tablet push came in 2001 when Microsoft, mostly on Bill Gates' belief in tablet computers, directed the world's computer makers to support its Tablet PC project. There was a widely publicized build-up with all sorts of tablet prototypes that culminated in the unveiling of the Tablet PC platform in the fall of 2002. At Pen Computing Magazine (which spawned the present RuggedPCReview.com) we reviewed all those early tablets, including the Acer TravelMate C100, the HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1000, the Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000, the Motion Computing M1200, the Toshiba Portege 3500, and the ViewSonic V1100, and we summarized it all in Pen Computing Magazine's detailed 2002 Tablet PC specification table. What's immediately noticeable is that most of those marquee tablets were actually what came to be called "convertible notebooks" or "notebook convertibles."

What had happened was that Microsoft had gotten cold feet about the mainstream appeal of tablets in mid-stream, and ordered Acer to come up with a convertible notebook design. By the time the Tablet PC was actually and officially unveiled, the emphasis was clearly on notebook convertibles. The media was only cautiously optimistic about the outlook for the by now not-so-tablet-anymore Tablet PC, and the market quickly decided it didn't make much sense to pay extra for pen functionality on convertible notebooks that made thick and clumsy tablets, if they were used as tablets at all. So that didn't go over too well.

There were plenty of parties to blame for the 2001/2002 Tablet PC concept's lack of success. Microsoft's midstream switch to convertibles pretty much killed the belief in the tablet-only versions. Tablet products cost more without offering tangible benefits. Microsoft's marketing support was lacking, to put it mildly. By far the most important problem, though, was that Microsoft once again tried to put an only slightly adapted version of Windows on tablets. That approach didn't work in 1991, it didn't work with Windows 95, and it didn't work with Windows XP in 2002.

Then nothing happened in the tablet market for a good many years. Nothing, that is, than a few vertical market vendors eeking out a living offering various vertical market tablets for special applications. After all, if you have the right software and you have to walk around on the job, it IS easier and faster to just tap on a tablet than setting up a notebook and crank up Windows.

So then the iPhone happens in 2007 and dazzles the world with a smooth, elegant, effortless user interface, one that lets you tap and pan and swipe with just the slightest touch, and where you can use two fingers to smoothly zoom in and out or rotate things. What made it all possible was Apple's use of a capacitive touch screen, a technology that neither needed a special pen like the preferred digitizer technology of the Microsoft Tablet PC, nor a stylus like most handhelds and PDAs. Capacitive touch, while hardly new, made using the iPhone fun and easy, but no one anticipated what would come next, and that was the iPad.

As stated in the opening paragraph, there was much criticism when Apple first announced the iPad. It wasn't computer enough, you couldn't run real software on it, it was just a big iPhone without the phone, and so on and so on. What those critics didn't realize was that the only reason the tablet form factor hadn't worked before was because the software hadn't worked before. Or more precisely, because Microsoft's insistence on "Windows Everywhere" was a big, colossal failure. One more time: Windows was designed to be used with a mouse. A mouse. Not a pen, and not fingers.

So what's the first thing Microsoft does when capacitive touch is starting to look like a real good thing? It adds touch to Windows 7. Which meant that the few Windows-based computers that also have a projected capacitive touch screens could be operated with touch. Sort of. Sort of, because Windows 7 is no more a touch-optimized OS than any other version of Windows before it.

The sheer predicament Microsoft was facing became evident during 2010. As millions of iPads were sold, Microsoft had nothing other than Windows 7 with the usual bit of pen support. This left the door wide open for Google, which had opportunistically positioned the Android OS they had purchased and developed as the platform of choice for iPhone rivals. Despite the flop of their own Google phone, the surprise success of the Droid helped Motorola get back on the (phone) map and quickly established the Android OS as the primary alternative for most non-Apple smartphones.

Not surprisingly, while Microsoft waited out 2010, it became apparent that Android, like the iOS, could easily scale up to larger tablet form factors. This realization apparently caught Google somewhat by surprise as their Android development efforts remained firmly concentrated on smartphones. This didn't stop a growing flood of bargain basement priced Chinese iPad copies to use (or maybe abuse) Android in cheap hardware with resistive digitizers that made them almost impossible to operate. This certainly didn't help Android look good, but the software platform's ascension into tablets is a done deal nonetheless.

Interestingly, despite lots of tablet announcements, nine months after the iPad went on sale, there's really only one halfway credible Android tablet out there, and that's the Samsung Galaxy Pad. I say "halfway" because the Samsung tablet only has a 7-inch display, thus placing it into a different category from the iPad.

So where does that leave the booming and seemingly unstoppable (experts predict many tens of millions sold in each of the next few years) tablet market? In an interesting situation for sure. Let's look at some of the forces at work:

First, almost no one wants to truly alienate Microsoft, and so Android may well find itself getting the "PenPoint treatment," referring to the situation almost two decades ago where a better-suited OS was muscled off tablet hardware by Microsoft. However, Google is an entirely different class of opponent than the underfunded PenPoint movement was back then. But Microsoft is different, too, and though Microsoft has lost a great deal of momentum, it still controls the desktop and most of the notebook market.

Second, even if Microsoft were to somehow prevail against Android, they still need to face themselves. For decades now, Microsoft has been its own biggest enemy with their dogged determination to use the big old Windows OS everywhere, whether it was suitable or not. Sure, they deviated a bit here and there, but whatever they tried elsewhere (Windows CE, Auto PC, special versions of Windows, etc.) always was sort of half-hearted and primarily designed not to encroach on Windows proper. So I just cannot see how a version of Windows 7 or 8 retrofitted to sort of fit onto tablets would meet with much more success than Windows for Pen Computing or the Windows Tablet PC Edition.

Third, there's a digitizer predicament. From the very dawn of pen computing, starting with the earliest tablets, virtually all serious tablet computers used an "active" digitizer, i.e. the kind that lets you write smoothly and accurately onto the surface of the display as if it were a sheet of paper. Active digitizers allow for very precise drawing, writing in "digital ink," and also for handwriting recognition (which really works much better than most give it credit for). Active pens do not need actual physical touch for the digitizer to know where the pen is, and that makes them great for popping up pulldowns or explanatory balloons and such before committing to a touch that might trigger an action. Problem is, capacitive touch cannot do that. Sure, you can write with your fingers, but not in any meaningful way. For that you need a pen.

And the digitizer predicament doesn't end there. A lot of the tablets (and convertibles) sold into vertical and industrial markets are going to be used outdoors where there are pesky things like bright sunshine, all sorts of reflections, rain, snow, dust, physical impact, and people wearing gloves. Capacitive touch displays can handle some of those, but not all. Possible answers are offering a variety of optional digitizers, or a combination of them. Both approaches increase costs, and they have their limits. And the underlying OS platform determines what kinds of digitizers make sense. For example, you can operate Windows quite well with a resistive digitizer, but Android really needs capacitive touch. Anyone who needs to write or draw on a tablet needs either an active or a resistive digitizer, and won't benefit from the wonders of touch-based zooming, panning and swiping, unless touch is combined with either active or resistive technology.

The final, and greatest, problem is that the iPad has irrevocably changed what users expect from a tablet. If you give someone a tablet these days, they simply expect to be able to quickly zoom in and out in a browser, and they use two fingers to do it. If that doesn't work, or only works poorly, well, why doesn't this work like an iPad? This, then, is the danger facing everyone who makes a tablet that looks just like an iPad: it must also work as well as an iPad. Or almost as well.

We'll probably have some answers soon. We'll soon know if Microsoft's answer to the iPad will simply be putting Windows 7 on tablets, or if they've learned from past mistakes. We'll soon know how successful Android will be in making major vendors truly commit to it. And we'll soon know whether HP will seriously try to add another option with the WebOS they got when they bought Palm.

It should be interesting.

Posted by conradb212 at December 16, 2010 08:30 PM

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