It's getting crowded in the business tablet market, with four devices -- five, if you count the iPad -- competing for the same business users. Of the four, the new kid on the block, the Windows 7 HP Slate 500, will be the first true business tablet to ship, considering the Android-powered Cisco Cius and the Avaya Desktop Video Device are video conferencing devices and the BlackBerry PlayBook is still months away from release.
I spent some time with the HP Slate 500 tablet PC in New York at a sneak-peek press event, and because I'm impressed with the technology -- HP essentially whittled a relatively powerful netbook down into a 1.5 pound, 8.9-inch slate, and loaded Windows 7 Professional on it -- I'm curious as to why HP isn't targeting consumers. However, it is clear that HP means business with the Slate 500, and business could soon boom.
I'm not surprised by my positive initial reaction to the Slate 500. TabletPCReview had good things to say about Hewlett Packard's last convertible tablet, the Touchsmart tm2t, a device NotebookReview's Jerry Jackson said was "the only tablet worth considering" for those looking for a Windows-based touch device.
As for the Slate 500, I think the build is solid, the glossy display is impressive with none of the noticeable grain affecting other tablets, and my brief inking experience was superb. My handwriting is illegible at best, chicken scratch at worst, and still the Slate 500 rendered my characters and notes accurately, something I can't say about the TouchSmart tm2t.
The Slate 500 also shared one of my favorite netbook characteristics: near-instant on. For an Intel Atom-powered device (Intel Atom Z540 1.86GHz) running Windows 7 Professional, it fired up especially fast. The unit I toyed with did not have Microsoft Office installed, and the room had a very weak Wi-Fi signal, so I couldn't push the Slate 500 beyond multitasking with a few accessories like Paint, which it handled very well.
Too Small for Windows?
If there is one area of concern, it's the 8.9-inch display size. Can you really have an effective Windows 7 experience on a screen that small? The iPad screen is 9.7-inches, and iOS is much simpler than Windows 7. Navigating with the N-trig pen, I had no issue finding my way around Windows, but I imagine Excel and Word will feel especially cramped.
I posed that question to Crawford Del Prete. He's an analyst and the Executive VP of Worldwide Research at IDC, and he's been using the Slate "for a while." He claims, "the screen and form factor are great, as is the overall industrial design." He also added, "While some web pages need to be scrolled for the 8.9-inch screen, it's not bad. Book reading apps like KindlePC render perfectly, as do Windows apps. The nice part about the 8.9-inch screen is that it's a great 'take along' form factor."
In my meeting with HP, I also expressed my Slate 500 size concerns, but a rep reminded me that as a business tablet, the Slate 500 has to be portable. For example, doctors need something that fits in their lab coat pocket and waiters need a tablet that fits in their smock.
Built for Business
So why would a waiter need a slate? The use case HP outlined was with a team of Slate 500 armed staffers, each tied into a database with a dynamically-updated wine list or current menu items. Taking it a step further, a waiter could jot down the order with the pen and wirelessly send it to the kitchen for preparation, as well as total the bill on the spot.
An insurance agent could use the Slate to document an accident scene or car damage through the Slate's webcam. All insurance forms could be preloaded onto the device, and wirelessly sent to the office.
Check out this HP produced video to get an idea of the Slate in action.
TabletPCReview's sister site, SearchHealthIT has documented the iPad's surprising popularity in health care, particularly the issues it raises with electronic health records and how increased mobility affects IT infrastructure. Reporter Don Fluckinger regularly blogs on the subject, and recently pondered the thought, if the iPad were a PC, Apple would be No. 1 computer maker.
These use cases also explain why the HP Slate 500 won't ship with Office. Businesses will probably just blow away most of the software and install their own custom apps, perhaps better optimized for the 8.9-inch screen than Excel.
First Out of the Gate
I asked IDC's Del Prete what prospects he thinks the HP Slate 500 has in the enterprise, considering how crowded the market is becoming. And he think the prospects are promising.
"Well, given that it's here, and many of the others are not yet shipping, I think that it's an immediate contender for those customers that are fully using Windows and want to extend the platform to the slate form factor," he said.
As for its strengths, he explained, "I think it fits in for many of the things that you do with Slates: media consumption, reading, IP communications (Skype and chat), and has the added benefit of supporting enterprise Windows apps, which means in retail and medical there are a lot of apps that are already integrated into this environment."
The Slate 500 has generated significant interest on the TabletPCReview forums from eager consumers and tablet enthusiasts, and there are plenty of Windows fans eager to see the OS in a truly compact slate form factor. So why doesn't HP release the device at Best Buy and other retail outlets. Once again, Mr. Del Prete offered his insight.
"I think HP has bigger plans for the consumer with webOS. Consumers can buy this product from HP.com if they choose, but I think scaling it down to the consumer space would just cloud the positioning of the webOS product."
So what about that webOS tablet? I didn't even get a chance to ask before an HP rep blurted what has become the standard line: expect a webOS tablet in 2011.
The Slate 500 tablet PC is now available for $800, and TabletPCReview is working hard to secure a review unit of the enterprise tablet. Judging from the Slate 500 reaction on the message boards, it should give us enough to talk about until those 2011 tablets arrive.
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