Hewlett-Packard's launch of its Slate 500 tablet, priced at $799 and preinstalled with Windows 7 Professional, represents the end of a long and winding saga between the manufacturer and Microsoft.
The story begins 10 months ago. During his Jan. 6 keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled an HP tablet that he said would hit the market by the end of 2010. "Almost as portable as a phone, but [as] powerful as a PC running Windows 7," he said, holding the device toward the audience. "The emerging category of PCs should take advantage of the touch and portability capabilities."
Ballmer also spent a few minutes showing off the tablets' Web-surfing, video-playing and e-reader capabilities. He did not offer a price.
But more details of the HP Slate soon hit the street, courtesy of an April blog post by Phil McKinney, vice president and CTO of HP's Personal Systems Group: "Think about the last time you chatted with friends over Skype on your notebook," he wrote on the company's Voodoo Blog. "Or uploaded a picture from your mobile phone to Facebook or Flickr. How about the last time you viewed images or video from an SD card or a USB device. We know that you expect to be able to capture and share digital content on your mobile devices."
The HP Slate, McKinney suggested, would be able to fulfill all those functions, in addition to a handful of others, such as video conferencing. A 30-second video accompanying the blog post showed a pair of hands activating a Skype app, taking an image with the built-in camera module, plugging in a USB cord, and inserting a 16GB SD memory card into a slot in the side of the device.
Plans for a Windows-equipped Slate seemed on track for a few more weeks, until HP announced that it would acquire Palm for $1.2 billion. "Under Jon Rubinstein, former Palm chairman and chief executive officer, the Palm global business unit will report to [executive vice president of HP's Personal Systems Group Todd] Bradley," read a July 1 missive from HP. "Palm will be responsible for WebOS software development and WebOS-based hardware products, from a robust smartphone roadmap to future slate PCs and netbooks."
That raised the question of whether HP would still pursue tablets running Windows. Despite Ballmer's assertions-particularly during a June 3 talk at the D8 conference-that a sufficiently customized version of Windows could run on tablets, analysts began to argue to the contrary.
"The Windows PC operating system does not lend itself to a touch-screen tablet experience," John Spooner, an analyst for Technology Business Research, argued in a research note. "HP can couple the capabilities offered by WebOS with its own design expertise to become a key player in this emerging market segment."
In a May research note, Forrester analysts J.P. Gownder and Sarah Rotman Epps argued that any tablet-specific version of Windows 7 needed to offer a "simple, streamlined, guided experience" for users.
"Microsoft and its partners must develop UX shell(s) appropriate to the tablet format to compete with Apple's excellent iPad performance," they wrote. Price was also a key factor: "If a sub-$499 offers a bad consumer experience, it will fail. Prices above $750 would almost certainly be too high for a complementary device that acts as a second, third or fourth PC in the home."
By July, however, HP confirmed that a Windows tablet was still in the works-but not for the consumer segment. "Our focus is working with still our largest software partner, Microsoft, to create a tablet for the enterprise business," Bradley was quoted as saying during July's Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference. "I think you'll see us with a family of Slate products-clearly a Microsoft product in the enterprise-and a WebOS product broadly deployed."
Now comes the Slate 500-but HP seems determined to limit its distribution. "You won't be able to buy this at retail," HP Personal Systems Group PR manager Mike Hockey told eWEEK. "We're making it available strictly on our Website, because we're looking at it as a business-type device."
The 8.9-inch tablet includes a single USB port, an SD card slot, front- and rear-facing cameras for video conferencing, 1.86GHz Intel Atom Z540 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 64GB of flash storage. It also comes with Office 2010 and Evernote organizational software.
But the tablet also enters a radically different environment from the start of 2010. Apple has sold nearly 8 million iPads since the device's April release, and other manufacturers are planning their own tablets. On the enterprise side of the equation, Research In Motion has been readying its 7-inch PlayBook tablet for release within the next few months; that device also includes front- and rear-facing cameras, along with an operating system based on QNX technology and support for apps.
Meanwhile, Ballmer has seemed reluctant to talk about Windows-equipped tablets. During an Oct. 21 appearance at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2010, in Orlando, he sidestepped a question about whether such devices would hit the market by the end of 2010. "Devices ship all the time," he told a pair of Gartner analysts. "You'll continue to see an evolution of devices. That's what you'll continue to see...there's a next generation of things that will come with the Intel processors."
Those "Intel processors" are a reference to the chipmaker's low-power "Oak Trail" Atom processor, due in 2011. At Microsoft's Financial Analyst Meeting over the summer, Ballmer seemed to indicate that the company's major tablet push would come in conjunction with that processor's release.
In the meantime, that leaves the Slate 500 to hit the market, seemingly by itself in a sea of Apple and Google Android tablets. Will the Slate find an audience within the enterprise? Or is it D.O.A.? After so many long months of twists and turns, that question may soon have an answer.