What's The Allure Of Tablet Computers?

Tom Bodkin of The New York Times holding a tablet computer in 2006 i i

hide captionTom Bodkin of The New York Times displays a tablet computer at the American Society of Newspaper Editors annual convention in 2006.

Elaine Thompson/AP
Tom Bodkin of The New York Times holding a tablet computer in 2006

Tom Bodkin of The New York Times displays a tablet computer at the American Society of Newspaper Editors annual convention in 2006.

Elaine Thompson/AP

If the rumors have it right — and in this case they probably do — Apple will introduce a slate or tablet computer Wednesday. The announcement would come just a couple of weeks after other computer companies showed off slates at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. But many people may still be wondering exactly what a slate computer is — and why someone might want one.

If you aren't sure what a slate computer is, you aren't alone. A few years back many Hewlett-Packard executives couldn't really figure it out either. So Phil McKinney, chief technology officer for HP's Personal Systems Group, took HP executives on a trip to the final frontier: He showed them clips from Star Trek.

In the popular sci-fi series, slate computers were everywhere. They were flat, thin computers without keyboards that Enterprise crew members used to enter and retrieve information.

"The future for slates is you'll have slates just laying around the house. You'll have them laying around the office," McKinney says. "You'll be able to pick up that slate. You should be able to connect to your information. You should be able to have the interactive experience you want."

And McKinney says he thinks that future has arrived.

"What you're seeing is really a perfect storm of innovation from the standpoint of processors, operating system, touch technologies and the ability to bring that all together to hit a mainstream price point," McKinney says.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave a glimpse of HP's slate computer during his keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show. It's thin, about the size of a hardcover novel, and has a glass front. Of course it runs on a Windows operating system. And it also has access to Amazon's Kindle software. But the HP tablet offers more than Amazon's popular e-reader. Ballmer said that users can flip through a book in full color using the slate's touch screen.

But in an interview with NPR, Ballmer played down the size of the slate market.

He estimates that 300 million PCs will be sold in the next year and 150 million smart phones, but only single-digit millions of tablets.

If Apple Enters The Market

Apple could prove him wrong if, as expected, it steps into the market later this week. Apple has a history of popularizing existing devices, says Gartner Research analyst Mike McGuire.

"What Apple does is takes those existing paradigms that are nice, functional devices and turns them into something unique," he says.

McGuire points to the iPod and the iPhone. Neither device was the first of its kind. But Apple made them popular.

McGuire imagines that an Apple tablet will have a lot more than books. It's also likely to feature video, music, movies and an Internet connection. So, if you are dying to know the name of an actor while you are watching a film, McGuire says, you won't have to wait until the credits roll. All you would have to do is touch the screen, and up pops the actor's name.

While some might be turning to science fiction to imagine the future of the slate, others are turning to magic. Jakob Nielsen, an expert on technology usability, points to Harry Potter's newspaper, The Daily Prophet.

"It comes with these photographs that are all kind of moving images because of the magic of Harry Potter and the wizards ... all the photos could be moving, could be video clips," Nielsen says.

Still, Nielsen does see at least two possible technological hurdles to the success of slate PCs: They can't be too expensive, and they have to have a long battery life. If Apple gets that right, at least some analysts believe tens of millions of tablet and slate computers will be sold in 2010.

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