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Technology CompaniesAppleThe Year of Slate Designs

The Year of Slate Designs

To me, it’s official. We are in the “Year of the Slate.” Well, it may not be a year per se, maybe two, three or more, but we’re clearly in a transitionary period where slate–or keyboardless–devices and computers are deemed acceptable by consumers. Swivel and convertible designs are OK, but not mandatory as once was thought based on sales experiences with Microsoft’s Tablet PCs. The market has evolved.

What’s going on here?

Well, let’s just say a little keyboardless device changed the world. That is, of course, the iPhone from Apple. Through it’s efficient and sleak design, with the first quality capacitive multi-touch support, people began to realize and see that slate designs really aren’t that bad after all.

Part of what’s gone on here is that for many people, outside of writing papers for class or work, most prose is topping out at about 140 characters, thanks to Twitter and SMS inspired limits. Any typing we do has become quite bursty. Also, as consumers become more comfortable with placing or viewing data/content in the cloud that can be accessed from multiple devices, people are in turn becoming more comfortable with using multiple devices. They don’t have to place all their computing eggs in one basket, whether it be a Windows PC, Mac, or Linux machine. Smartphones have helped with this transition although the Amazon Kindle eReader, another slate form factor, deserves special mention here too.

Yes, there has been interest in UMPCs and MIDs, small mostly slate computers that are bigger than an iPhone, but smaller than most notebooks. However, in terms of numbers, pricing, software, thinness, and weight, these devices haven’t reached the popularity that the iPhone or Kindle have.

So much have the iPhone and Kindle re-inspired the slate market, that I’d say the introduction of each of these products was really the harbinger of the “Year of the Slates.” It’s taken a couple years in the case of the iPhone’s introduction some two years ago now, however, the slate market is in full swing now.

Not only are there many knock off smartphone slate style designs now–some with keyboards, most with not–many with touch or multi-touch–many with sensors–that it’s clear to see how the slate form factor is thriving, at least in the phone market.

The eReader market also is firmly committed to the slate form factor with not only the Kindle, but devices from numerous other manufacturers like Sony.

Interestingly the ARM processor–or similar–seems to be enabling many of these slate designs. That’s quite interesting. It’s almost like the thin world is synonymous with ARM and the thick world of convertibles and slates belongs to Intel powered devices. The difference is not simply thickness here. In large part it’s because the ARM processors are more power efficient. I imagine over the next couple years we’ll see Intel close the power gap between its offerings and ARM. When this happens I expect the competition from the giant Intel will really bring down thin slate prices and boost the market numbers that we might see otherwise. That’s down the road though.

Back to today. For now, this year, we’ll see devices like the CrunchPad, which is tuned for web reading and uses an Intel Atom processor with a minimal slate design to keep its usability simple, sleak, and efficient. Even the Linux OS is minimized, since in web mode, it’s all about the browser and not the shell. Each of these decisions is supposedly contributing to a lower cost, though we haven’t seen the final product yet. At $300 I’d expect to see this device become quite popular–particularly with the TechCrunch crowd.

After this, if rumors are correct, we’re going to see a larger iPod Touch–or Apple Tablet as some people are calling it. This product supposedly will leverage ARM technology in order to keep it thin and sleak, though the price is predicted to be in the $800 range. Again, we’ll have to see. Price aside, as an Apple product, I wouldn’t be surpised if the Apple Tablet turns into a home run. If it does, this will really shake the market up.

On the eReader side, we’re also set to see a new slate entrant from Plastic Logic. This well demoed device is sure to please because of its extremely thin and paper-like influence. We’ll have to see how it plays out, but if the Plastic Logic reader is as good as Plastic Logic has been suggesting, then we’ll have one more slate winner.

So we’re set to see at least three more slates this year, in addition to a slew of MIDs and the remaining pack of UMPCs. All slates. Of course, to get sales, each product is going to have to make its case and that’s where the fun begins. My guess is we’ll see some successes here that showcase how value it can be to have more than one or even two computing devices. A Notebook, an Internet-friendly Phone, a Reader may become a common collection of devices.

Now there is one more device category that I think will join the party too–digital cameras. I’m not quite sure why I keep thinking that software based cameras are the wave yet to surface, but all things considered I think it will happen. There are so many sensors, software, connectivity that are similar that it makes sense that cameras should join the cloud device network. Some very experienced PC designers have told me that this is unlikely to happen, but it just seems like a natural. And, further, for the mass market I can see where the slate influence makes sense. Anyway, market forces being what they are, this may take a handful of years to come about, but I’ll still set forth my prediction now.

Well, am I wrong? Have we moved from the “Year of touch/multi-touch” (also inspired by the iPhone) on to the “Year of the Slate?” Or not. What do you think?

Loren Heiny (1961 - 2010) was a software developer and author of several computer language textbooks. He graduated from Arizona State University in computer science. His first love was robotics.

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