One of the mysteries of the Tablet PC has been its singular failure in European markets. Behind that enigma lies an even greater one: Why was Microsoft Corp. in EMEA (Europe, Middle-East and Africa) so gung-ho about MIRA, or Smart Display?
At the Wireless LAN Event in London next week, Im expecting Intel Corp. to make some announcements significantly affecting the tablet market. But the excitement generated in the strange international location known as EMEA will be imperceptible compared to the attention American markets will give to this topic, and theres probably a silly reason.
What I can tell you is that things have changed. Well, lets be more conservative: Things look like they are changing.
When I ran into Scott Eckert of Motion Computing Inc. a year ago, he showed me easily the nicest tablet Ive played with yet. He forecast great things for it, especially with Dell reselling, and he was pretty much on the button with his forecast. Except, that is, for his plans for sales in Europe.
Eckert just relaunched his EMEA operation, hiring pen-computing veteran Andy Toal away from Fujitsu Siemens Computers AG. And the contrast is pretty stark: Where Motion Computing is roughly No. 5 in tablet markets and worldwide, virtually all of that derives from U.S.-based sales, if you believe some of its research.
Now, if you sit down with an industry-standard Microsoft product manager and let the industry-standard PowerPoint machine roll, you will get various explanations for this. Who knows? Some of them may even be valid. But behind all of that lies a stronger fact that Microsoft, for some internal political reason, went into Europe waving the flag of the Smart Display.
The idea of smart display was pretty neat. After all, the main difference between a CRT display and a TFT display is that the cat cant sleep on the TFT, thus doing amazing things for sales of keyboard covers. And because the TFT flat screen is small and thin, its also lightweight. So, some bright pumpkin lit up its candle and said, “Hey! Why not build a battery into it and use wireless to connect it, and then you can move it around?”
A brilliant idea, until you price it. At that point, most of the audience in most presentation rooms coughed politely, muttered about needing to get to the bathroom or the stock exchange or the brothel or the next rocket to Mars, and left.
The fact is, most of what you would want a smart display for, you can use a tablet to do. Unfortunately, a smart display will do almost nothing else that a tablet does, except run out of power when you really need it.
You can plug a tablet into your wireless network, log on to the remote desktop protocol (RDP) and drive your desktop machine in exactly the way a smart display does, but with this important difference: When the thing gets out of wireless range, the tablet still works.
ZIFFPAGE TITLEA Change in Product
What is changing? In a word, Microsofts perception of which product to promote.
A year ago, I was still being invited to see Koninklijke Philips Electronics N.V.s smart display. A huge thing requiring two flunkies to carry around, it would cut off the circulation in your legs if you tried putting it on your lap. If you wanted to use the machine upstairs, you had to rig a block and tackle and hoist the display upstairs first. Had the thing become compulsory equipment for some reason, there would have been a flourishing market in mountaineering backpacks for carrying it. Beautiful, yes, and at least as useful as any steam-powered refrigerator.
Apparently, a couple of months back someone in Redmond asked why tablet sales in Europe are lagging so badly behind projection. Microsoft, at last, is putting some marketing muscle behind it.
This wont end the Tablet PCs problems. Basically, what you need to make the tablet truly popular is a breakthrough in battery technology, not just a marginal improvement. Im not saying there will or wont be an improvement announced next week, but I am saying that if there were to be, it would not change the tablet from something heavy that lasts three hours into something you can fan your face with and lasts all day. Nobody in battery technology expects that.
And even if we had batteries as light as SD cards that could power a PC for 18 hours, it still wouldnt make the tablet a success. What it will take in the end is nothing short of a bold, courageous commitment by Microsoft to make Tablet Edition the standard version of XP and to enable full ink features for all modern PCs with some kind of optional pen-board.
As long as the tablet stays a minority interest, developers will fail to support its features and users will only buy one if they have to.
Still, at least the European arm of Microsoft has stopped promoting the wrong machine.
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