Why Windows 7 'slate' tablets won't happen

The quiet disappearance of the HP Slate -- Microsoft's great tablet hope -- shows that dream has died

Remember all the buzz around Hewlett-Packard's Slate, a Windows 7-based tablet that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer featured in a keynote presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in January? It was Microsoft's shot across Apple's bow, meant to show Microsoft wasn't ceding the tablet market to the then-unreleased iPad. HP kept the Slate in the blogosphere's eye through occasional posts and carefully vague videos of the device at its Website.

But quietly, the Slate went away, and now the buzz around HP is that it will use Palm's WebOS as the foundation for iPad rivals, once it's completed its buyout of Palm. (On Friday, Digitimes quoted an HP Taiwan exec saying the Slate would use WebOS instead of Windows 7.)

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All the tablet buzz now centers around the iPad, various Android devices said to be in development at Dell and other manufacturers, and HP's future WebOS tablet. What happened to Windows 7?

A tablet is not a laptop whose screen is always visible
The answer: The iPad proved a tablet shouldn't be a portable computer that happened to have its screen always exposed. Instead, a tablet should be something else. Apple got a lot of criticism early on for not making the iPad essentially a Mac OS X tablet computer, in the vein of the Windows tablet computers available -- but hardly used -- for the last decade.

Apple -- followed by Dell, HP, and the rest of the industry -- has realized a tablet is something different, and force-fitting a desktop OS into it simply won't work. Remember the splash Microsoft and HP made on touchscreen PCs last fall? That chatter has gone quiet too outside the nichy kiosk space, and for the same reason: Windows 7 is not designed for a touch-oriented interaction. Microsoft's touch extensions to Windows 7 are awkward to use and don't get around the problem that all the apps and the OS itself assumes the use of mouse or other pointing device. A finger isn't as accurate as a mouse, and UI elements designed for a mouse-and-keyboard interface don't translate to the touch world, even with UI extensions that support finger-based input.

Lessons from Apple's touch-native enforcement
Microsoft needs a UI designed for touch -- rich gestures for input and a fundamental UI design that doesn't involve lots of elements such as tabbed panes, radio buttons, check boxes, and dialog boxes. But it doesn't have one. Plus, for applications to really support touch and gestures, they need to do more than map mouse actions to finger ones; the interface and operational design needs to be touch-native as well. No mapping layer for libraries will take care of that for you, as you can quickly see if you use a Windows 7 touchscreen PC.

I believe Microsoft recognizes that fact, which is why its forthcoming Windows Phone 7 mobile platform uses a separate, largely new OS designed at the ground level for gestures and touch.

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