The Inevitable Slow-Motion Death of the Tablet PC

By  |  Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 10:57 pm

billtabletpcTodd Bishop’s TechFlash site has a worthwhile read up on the unhappy response of Tablet PC enthusiasts to Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie’s description of the Tablet PC as a “niche” product at last week’s PDC event. I feel for those fans–and as I think about it, Tablet PC lovers are among the most passionate boosters of any Microsoft product I’ve ever met. Whenever I encounter someone who has a Tablet, I ask him or her how she likes it; virtually without exception, those folks are huge boosters of the platform. Microsoft could use a lot more customers like that.

That said, the Tablet PC, which turns seven years old this month, always felt like a doomed platform, at least if the benchmark of success was wide, ongoing mainstream acceptance. A few thoughts on why after the jump.

Microsoft’s irrational exuberance. When I was briefed on the new platform back at the Comdex 2001 show, I asked a Redmondian exec how popular he thought it would be. He told me that he thought that nearly all laptops would be tablets within five years. That seemed like a preposterous notion even then. And if your goals are out of whack with reality it’s hard to accomplish much of anything.

Windows wants a keyboard. Windows needs a keyboard. I’ve never seen a version of Windows–be it Tablet PC or Windows Mobile or the weird, dead-on-arrival Windows Smart Displays–that dispensed with physical QWERTY keys in a way that made sense. Tablet aficionados would dispute this, but Microsoft’s pen interfaces have always felt bolted-on to me.

The hardware often felt like a kludge. At Comdex 2000, Bill Gates showed a prototype Tablet that looked like it was a truly new type of device. Most of the Tablets that actually shipped, however, felt more like standard PCs with the minimum amount of rejiggering required to run Microsoft’s Tablet PC OS.

If the boss loves it, worry. The mere fact that Gates used two consecutive Comdexes (Comdexii?) to tout Tablets as a Next Big Thing was a bad sign–a remarkable percentage of products featured in Gates keynotes have failed to amount to much of anything. Bill Gates himself is clearly a sincere Tablet devotee; you gotta wonder whether his personal enthusiasm created a mini-reality distortion field that caused Microsoft to devote more attention to Tablets than the market warranted.

Tablet PCs never got a “version 3.0.” That old saw about Microsoft products only getting good when they reach version 3.0? It’s largely true. Tablets may have gotten three versions in a technical sense, but it’s clear that Microsoft was losing interest by the time its second version rolled around. With Windows Vista, Microsoft rolled Tablet functionality into mainstream versions of the OS, but by then, the whole Tablet platform was atrophying. (Side note: I just attended a Microsoft workshop on Windows 7: Tablet PC didn’t come up once.)

The Chicken-or-the-Egg conundrum. If Microsoft had ever come out with a better Tablet OS, hardware manufacturers might have supported it more wholeheartedly. If hardware manufacurers had ever shown more commitment to making Tablets, Microsoft might have poured more resources into the OS. Instead, the industry’s lukewarm response to the platform (after an initial flurry of products) seemed to lead Microsoft to scale back its ambitions.

I used the word “death” in reference to Tablets in this post’s title–that’s probably too harsh given that there are still Tablets on the market and I’m not predicting that they’ll disappear entirely any time soon. But Ray Ozzie is right: They’re a niche. And they were never likely to become anything but one.

Ozzie, incidentally, brought up Tablets because he was explaining that the multi-touch features in Windows 7 wouldn’t be nichey. Anyone have any thoughts on whether touch-driven Windows will turn out to be a bigger deal then pen-driven Windows ever was?


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22 Comments For This Post

  1. Angela Gunn Says:

    (bursts into tears) Dammit, I’m one of those tablet owners (Samsung Q1, pre-pepperpad, thanks!), and I do love my silly little toy — I use it for Slingbox purposes, I use it for music streaming, I use it to hop online, I carry it around as a sketchpad. But you’re quite right re Microsoft’s apparent lack of interest; there’s an amazing number of bundled apps that were posted with no attention to the interface whatsoever. So sad, and a waste of a technology that really has made itself rather useful around my home.

  2. Mike Says:

    The idea was NEVER to create another platform, but simply to extend the affordances of a mobile PC (or laptop if you will), in the same way that adding a mouse, a CD or DVD drive, or wireless connectivity has done.

    A lot of Tablet stuff got lost in the Vista death march, where some enabling technologies like WinFS fell by the way side. Nonetheless serious advances were made in the handwriting reco, and in amazing apps like OneNote, which is truly wonderful for students and knowledge workers. Rightly or wrongly, the initial Tablet team was absorbed into the wider Windows team, so that issues like power consumption and alternative inputs could be plugged in everywhere. It’s not like you see a Wireless Lan PC platform or a Laptop with Webcam platform. … the initial incubation of Tablet technologies simply moved into Vista and beyond.

    As much as Microsoft failed to run with the advantages of a pen/touch interface (and failed to make use of boosters), margin-driven OEMs never got behind it by pushing it out into retail stores (I’ve seen a maximum of 5 Tablets ever in retail stores in 6 years). Evenso, new models come out every month from more and more OEMs. I’ve had a Google News alert on “tablet PC” running for years now, so I have a good sense of the water flowing under that bridge. It would be great to see better industrial design though – with perhaps the exception of Sony, Microsoft has more hardware designers than most of the major OEMs put together (who just pull in grey-box assemblies from manufacturers you’ve never heard of in Taiwan etc).

    As for Windows “needing a keyboard”, well what do you use your Windows box for? Writing columns about the longevity of QWERTY and how well you can touch-type?

    Personally, I use mine for reading, for road-trip mapping, for drawing, for reading sheet music (I have thousands of pieces as PDF all available at my piano), annotating, brainstorming with diagrams, taking meeting notes where flow charts and designs are made. You may not see any Microsoft ads showing you all of this, but sadly I have yet to see a single columnist thinking outside the box.

  3. Harry McCracken Says:

    I’m very open to the notion of computing devices without keyboards–I was very happy with Palm’s Graffiti for a long time, and fine with the iPhone, too. But both those operating systems were built to work well without a keyboard; Windows wasn’t, and–to me at least–Microsoft never did a satisfactory job of reinventing it to work well without one. Reasonable people may disagree; Tablet fans almost certainly will.

    One thing I shoulda mentioned in my post: I bought a Toshiba Tablet PC with my own dough and lived with it and used it to do real work. The -idea- of the Tablet PC I like very much; the real-world experience, not so much…


  4. Surur Says:

    As a happy owner of a HP TX2005, I think when MS said all laptops would be tablets they meant the convertible kind. I have been waiting for the price of convertible tablet pc’s to come down to reasonable levels for a long time, and HP was the one to finally do that, and I believe the device is selling really well.

    Whereas the slate PC never took off (see the difference between UMPC and EeePC) I think Touch combined with keyboard is a very good combination, and a great value add for a OEM wanting to differentiate their product. However anything which adds more than $100 will automatically doom it to failure.

  5. Mike Says:

    The Tablet PC project was never “replace the keyboard”, but “make computers available in more places”. It’s funny that no one seems to write about other PC technologies as zero-sum games, like “oh they’ve given me wireless so they expect me to never use a wired connection, cause you know those wires are sooo much faster”. So this article is almost an exact clone of every other touch-typing-is-king spiel I’ve seen for years.

    If you’re just a “sit at the desk and write text” droid then a pen interface will probably never make you happy. When I show one of my tablets to musicians and architects and students and designers and mathematicians and engineers and surveyors and realtors, their eyes boggle. For those who are constantly mobile, then a slate works really well (witness the Motion Computing business) – you do your mobile stuff and then come back to the desk and dock it with a keyboard. I have very little dependence on the handwriting recognition because I am primarily using reading back my own notes, and the fuzzy-matching works well enough that I have every major handwritten or sketched document backed-up and searchable.

    I have a desktop for the heavy text gruntwork, but for the last 6years, my laptop has always been a Tablet (I’m just wearing out my 3rd, the last having travelled through 30 countries with me), with the data synched between them. I could never have used a pen-less device in so many situations. I have an iPhone too, but I can’t sketch on it, and the screen is too small for a huge number of my uses.

    The extra cost of a resistive screen is barely noticeable because the benefits are too huge. A computer that I can use at my desk, on my sofa, in my car and on my piano sheet-music stand – awesome!

    A pen is much more natural for my hand, more expressive for my mind. Maybe there’s a lost generation of people who think a keyboard is a more natural thing to bolt on to their bodies. A pen reclaims a computer for the way _I_ work.

  6. D9 Says:

    Well all that said means just what the article deems as the Tablet PC’s demise…it’s a niche technology. Limited capabilities, limited market equals limited resources, limited commitment.

  7. Mike Says:

    Repeating that “it’s niche” doesn’t contribute anything to the topic. Justifying the rest of the comment might.

  8. Andrew Wilcox Says:

    It’s sad but true. On my fifth HP Tablet PC now a 2710p. The TC1000 missed the mark. The TC1100 was going in the correct direction. The TC4400 was a reversal to the convertible. The 2710p had some acknowledgement of the TC1100 (it was the same colour) and the 2730p puts some of the buttons back.

    Mindjet made me very excited in 2005 or was earlier with its ink mode but this has not been improved since then. They have even introduced bugs in the ink recently to put us off!

    None of this stops me using the TPC when I hit the road to record events as MindManager maps (and on some days get paid for doing it). From short presentations to 3 day outdoor music festivals, the TPC and MindManager have done their stuff for me.

    Vista ink to text was a big improvement. Perhaps there are some more surprises to come.

  9. Dave Barnes Says:


  10. Jeff Says:

    I like the multi-touch demos but while it works great on my iPhone I don’t see a need for it on my laptop in the way MS envisions it. It’s hard enough to keep my iPhone screen clean and thankfully I can use my pant leg to get the gunk off, but what about my 23″ HD monitor? Someone is going to make BIG $$$ in screen cleaning stuff! Again, it makes for a cool demo but unless it’s a tablet I don’t see multi-touch as anything more than a fun diversion.

    But what the #@! do I know!

  11. Says:

    im not sure microsoft needs to make a big number out of tablets any more. the stuff i have seen so far of win7 will work just as fine vith a active stylus.

    if there still is handwriting recognition, one can use the whole ui via stylus, rather then get a special “origami experience” launcher.

  12. Brad Baldwin Says:

    I lived the TabletPC world, working on the FranklinCovey TabletPlanner software. The tablet was a dog within months after launch. It was technology for technology sake. What looked to be an interesting extension into the “handwriting world” quickly became a non starter market. For me, it became perfectly clear when a news program broke that 6th graders were typing at 125 words a minute. For the new generation, a stylus / pen is not an enabler but a loss of productivity. In my research with college students, it was a top issue: why write when you can type?

  13. Matt Says:

    Having sold these devices and I found them ‘neat’ but poorly implemented and insufficiently rugged for where they were aimed at. Customers also thought they were neat, but our ratio of TPCs to regular notebooks was pretty low and the margin was terribly poor. For a limited number of note takers it was useful and for a limited number of applications they were useful. For day to day Excel, Word and IE the utility was less than desirable. When Vista brought in an improved recognition they certainly got more useful. But as a day to day device it is still as Ray Ozzie said a “niche” product, much like AppleTV.

  14. Michael Says:

    Wait until Apple comes out with their tablet PC (MacTouch maybe?). That’ll be a tablet worth buying.

  15. EdG Says:

    I don’t see why Tablet PC convertibles need to go away at all. For a small premium, you get a regular notebook plus (I repeat) plus the ability to turn the notebook in slate mode for a comfortable Web browsing and reading experience. Add the option to jot down notes, draw and otherwise make use of digital ink, and you have an outstanding mobile computing device.

    I am convinced that Tablet PCs would have fared a lot better had sales people and consumer been better educated and exposed to the additional (again) additional capabilities of Tablet PCs. It is inconceivable that Tablet PC sales people even today don’t know how to use and showcase Windows Journal, for example, or how to annotate Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents with digital ink; they don’t know how to use OneNote, MindManager or even bother to show how convenient and comfortable Web browsing and reading be with a Tablet PC in slate mode.

    I guess, we will have to wait for Apple to come up with a Tablet PC, because, at least Apple knows how to showcase its products and technology, even when they are just mere refinements of stuff that has been around for years. Apple knows how to design, package and sell good technology. PC sales people are never focused and a bit prehistoric at marketing technology, even enabli9ng technology, as tablet, pen and touch computing.

  16. Henri Says:

    The main problem with Tablet PC is MARKETING. The marketing always focussed on handwriting, notetaking etc. This limited the perceived usability to some so called “vertical markets” and thus limited the volumes sold. What is more, it relegated the Tablet PC to distribution channels inaccessable to the general market.

    The real usability of the (convertable) Tablet PC for me is to be found in applications, which use the slate properties of the Tablet PC. Web browsing, E-book and E-periodical reading, watching movies and TV etc. I do use the notetaking capabilities, but it is not my main application.

    I personally think the (convertable) Tablet PC has a long life ahead. Simply because the applications of the catagory described above are growing in importance and more an more mainstream users will see the advantages of the “slate mode”.

    The simple fact, that most main PC manufaturers sell Tablet PC’s and regularly launch new models of those proves my point. The one thing they should do however is to reposition the product and bypass parts of the traditional distribution channel.

  17. Philippe Says:

    The problem with tablet Pc’s are the sluggish video performance and the small screens.

    I’m in Architecture, and I’d love to be able to draw on the screen in photoshop, illustrator, or other apps (for CAD the mouse is fast, but sometimes it would feel pretty good to be able to manipulate things straight on the screen, for exploration, even if the progs aren’t really made for that, for now).
    I don’t really see the usefulness of handwriting though, freehand drawing is much more interesting.

    As far as I know there are no tablet PC’s to date with a good Graphic card (that can handle heavy 3d progs), and a 14-15 inch screen in high resolution (1440*900 is a minimum) ! Why do practicly all tablet pcs have integrated graphic cards ??

  18. Buy Electronics Says:

    I will definitely digg this story. The tablet PC situation is very similar to when Sony attempted to come out that alternate video playing device when everyone was producing VCRs. The result was billions of dollars into the incinerator. Meanwhile, apple on the other hand, will create a smaller more easy to accommodate laptop, and watch their stocks rise. Me personally, I need a keyboard.

  19. Mike Says:

    Buy Electronics wrote: “The tablet PC situation is very similar to when Sony attempted to come out that alternate video playing device when everyone was producing VCRs.”

    That is not even remotely analogous. The pen interface enables you to do _more_ than you can with keyboard alone. It’s not to replace a keyboard in situations when a keyboard is more useful.

    “Meanwhile, apple on the other hand, will create a smaller more easy to accommodate laptop, and watch their stocks rise.”

    That doesn’t even make any connection with your previous sentence.

    Being able to type rubbish at speed doesn’t make a very good argument for the death of non-keyboard interfaces.

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  21. Rugged Portable Computers Says:

    I think that it is a great idea and i would love to use one that really works well but they havent yet and so its pretty lame.

  22. roku Says:

    What makes me hold off from tablets are their **** performance, in combination to their exuberant pricing. I personally love the concept of a tablet, but really the money I pay gets me a computer I cannot use for anything other than netbook tasks. Its like I’m paying over $1000 extra for a digitizer on the screen.

    The premium is too high, performance too low. Can you believe it? 7 years and still not a single tablet with specs that don’t suck. I’m still waiting for tablets with decent graphic processors 🙁

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