Of Slates, Tablets, and Kindles: The Most Important Message of CES 2010

1/7/10Follow @gthuang

Lost amidst the cacophony of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is a simple message. It has nothing to do with what Microsoft did or didn’t announce—for example, some upcoming “slate PCs,” but no foldable book-like tablet or other rumored gadgetry. It has nothing to do with Google’s Nexus One “superphone,” with HTC and T-Mobile, which was announced outside of CES. It has everything to do with where laptops, netbooks, e-book readers, and gaming consoles are all converging.

Behold the tablet PC. And everything old is new again.

Last night, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave a preview of some of these devices, including a sleek touchscreen tablet PC made by Hewlett-Packard (with Windows 7 and Amazon’s Kindle software) that’s coming out this year. Ballmer’s keynote was described as “disappointing,” “uninspired,” and a “snooze-athon” by people who debate these things for a living. I have to say I disagree, though it was hardly great theater.

It’s true, Microsoft has been pushing tablet PCs since 2000, when Bill Gates first demonstrated a prototype at a similar tradeshow. But now, 10 years later, the form factor and interface capabilities actually make sense to people. (Microsoft can thank Apple and Amazon for that.) And with the cost of touchscreen components falling, it’s finally time for all those great interface technologies—handwriting apps, text-input software, video and image search, augmented reality—to take off. Microsoft looks like it’s trying to get ahead of Apple’s forthcoming touch-screen tablet or slate device, rumored to be announced later this month.

People in the know have been saying for a while that e-book readers like the Kindle are really just a stop along the way to a merged device that will let consumers read books, browse the Web, and run their favorite entertainment apps (games, music, video) on the go. In order to take off, though, tablets will need to replace something else. Nobody wants to carry around yet another device. Phones are safe for now. My long-term money is on the Kindle, iPod Touch, and handheld game consoles like the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS to get wiped out. With netbooks and laptops eventually to follow, once the text-input problem is satisfactorily solved.

Your move, Apple.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • Aubrey

    Microsoft has 10 years of experience behind them. I promise Windows 7 tablets will be far more useful than a big iPhone. No one will buy a big iPhone because the people who like Apple already own an iPhone. Why on earth would you carry around and iPhone and an iSlate? Easy, you wouldn’t.

  • prak

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Microsoft has 10 years of “experience”. bwahahahaha!

    Please, stop, it hurts…. Don’t even get me started on the “10 years” part.

    I don’t know if an Apple tablet exists, but if it does, I’d lay good odds that it’s not going to be what any of us quite expected.

  • prak

    Oops. Apologies if I double-posted!

  • Jack

    Yup, I have an iPhone. Plus two Mac laptops, an iMac and three iPods. But I’d still buy a ~$1K iSlate in a heartbeat! And no, I’m not an Apple fan boy (my desktop is XP/Linux, my keyboard and mouse Microsoft, my console an XBox), I just like buying best-of-their-kind that I can afford, and Zune ain’t it.
    Truth is, convergence is only so good, specialization and redundancy make for an overall better experience, so I can certainly look forward to a device that overlaps functionality with some of those I already have, but also offers some improvement in some areas. The iSlate might be it, the (n-th incarnation of the) Windows tablet again ain’t it, despite the “10 years” of Microsoft’s (painful!) experience.