HP released its Slate 500 tablet this week. Immediately, everyone started comparing it with Apple's iPad. But the two devices have nothing significant in common. They are in entirely different device categories and can even be thought of as opposites.
Some of my fellow journalists, industry watchers, Wall Street types and others seem to have difficulty making this distinction and continue to confuse the public by comparing the two.
I believe there's an important distinction -- as important as the difference between, say, a PDA and a smartphone was back when PDAs existed.
There will be many devices available in the same class and category as the iPad, and there will be many similar to the Slate. If you want to make sense of the new mobile market, you must understand the difference between the HP Slate and the Apple iPad.
Here's how to make that distinction.
Slate is a motorcycle, iPad is a bicycle
If you think of computing devices as vehicles, with servers being like trucks and PCs like cars, it's easier to understand tablets. The Slate is like a motorcycle and the iPad like a bicycle.
The motorcycle, like the Slate, is more powerful. That doesn't mean it's better. Which is more versatile, functional and usable by the widest range of people? Which one can you take on a bus, or hang inside an apartment? Which one is more likely to be used by children, the elderly and people in small villages around the world? Which is easier to maintain? Which is easier to use? Which is more energy-efficient?
You could argue that a motorcycle is "better" and "more powerful." But how many motorcycles do you have in your garage, and how many bicycles? There are about 200 million motorcycles in the world, but more than 1.4 billion bicycles.
If you can accept this analogy, then you can understand why it makes no sense to even mention the iPad when reporting the Slate's availability. When a new motorcycle comes out, the motorcycle magazines don't ask, "Will this kill the mountain bike?" It would be absurd.
Beyond metaphorical comparisons, what are the actual differences between HP Slate-type devices and Apple iPad-type devices? The differences are of class, interface, generation, usability, market, application model and vision. Let's look at each.
The class difference
The Slate is a PC. The iPad is an appliance.
The Slate is running the same operating system as your desktop PC and laptop, assuming you're a Windows 7 user. It's running components designed for PCs, including eight times the amount of RAM that's in an iPad. It runs PC applications unmodified.
The only difference between a Slate and a PC is that with the Slate, the screen can be used as an input device; a mouse and keyboard aren't required. But if you plug in a mouse and keyboard, everything will work fine. There are hundreds of different scenarios for PC input; the HP Slate is just one, and not a particularly exciting or innovative one.
Apple's iPad, on the other hand, is neither a PC nor an alternative to a PC. You use it in addition to using a PC. It's an entirely different class of device designed from the ground up to function as an information appliance.
It's not running a PC operating system and can't run PC applications. It doesn't have enough processing power or memory to even attempt such a feat. You can plug in a keyboard, but if you kludge together a system that enables use with a mouse, the UI doesn't make sense.
The interface difference
The HP Slate's user interface is the same as a Windows 7 interface on a full-tilt PC. To launch an application, you touch the Start button, then find the application on the menu, then touch to open it. Once open, it works just like all PC user interfaces have worked since the Mac shipped in 1984.
The Slate's user interface type is called WIMP, for windows, icons, menus and pointing devices. The iPad's UI doesn't have windows (not the resizable, overlapping kind), doesn't have WIMP-style menus and isn't optimized for pointing devices. It does have icons.
It's easy to see how the HP Slate's UI has everything in common with PCs going back to Windows 3.0, Macs going back to 1984 and Linux PCs, and nothing in common with the iPad. Except for the icons.
The generational difference
Since screens have been used to display computers' user interfaces, there have been three generations. The first generation of screen-based UIs was the command line. To launch an app in DOS, the first-generation OS that predated Windows, you typed the name of that application and hit the Enter key. To move a file, you typed the command for move, followed by the path of the file as understood by the file system. You had to memorize the magic words, and type them in as numbers and letters.
WIMP UIs were the second generation. They were graphical and abstract, and far more intuitive and usable for the general public than command-line computing. We've been using the WIMP UI for coming up on four decades now, and the HP Slate is merely the most recent implementation of this second-generation UI paradigm.
Multitouch, physics and gestures (MPG) computing is the third-generation user interface. Microsoft was the first major company to offer an MPG device, with its vertical-market Surface table. Apple was the first major company to offer a consumer MPG device, when it shipped the iPhone in 2007.
MPG devices are far more intuitive because they use the finger to control what's on screen without any intermediary devices such as a mouse or pen. And on-screen movement mimics the movement of objects in the real world, a fact that subconsciously delights the mind.
MPG computing will largely replace WIMP over the next 10 years. The HP Slate represents the past of computer interfaces, and the iPad, the future.
The usability difference
I haven't used the HP Slate. But it's a PC running Windows. As such, the UI won't be all that thrilling to use, and crashes are likely to be more frequent and problematic.
It's also hard to believe that installing and uninstalling software on the HP Slate will be even remotely as quick and easy as on the iPad.
And Windows PCs need to be maintained with defragging, registry maintenance and other chores or else they increasingly get slower and less stable over time.
The iPad is a thrill to use. It provides instant gratification, with instant-on and snappy performance. The MPG user interface just feels good to use. The iPad is stable. When it does crash, it recovers quickly and gracefully. It doesn't need to be "maintained." It doesn't often have to be "booted" or "shut down." It's also silent.
The market difference
HP is selling the Slate into one market: business.
The iPad, on the other hand, is being sold into dozens of different markets. The iPad will be used by 2-year-olds and senior citizens, school teachers and churches, gamers and TV watchers. And the Slate won't.
The application model difference
As a Windows 7 PC, the HP Slate uses the Windows application model. You'll find the application on the vendor's Web site, most likely, and click to download. You'll enter in a long CD-key-type string of characters and will have to remember to come back for updates.
During the install process, the application will make changes to the Windows registry and replace system files that may or may not be set back right when you uninstall.
The iPad application model is the App Store, followed by a very clean install and uninstall system. When you visit the App Store, you're prompted to download updates to all apps that have been issued an improved version. And they're all installed at once, in a few seconds and without rebooting.
To uninstall, you don't go to the Control Panel and start hunting for the app. You simply press and hold the icon, then click the X.
The vision difference
Some people think consumer electronics devices are just boxes full of electronics. I think it matters how they come about because it tends to reflect in the quality of the product. Design matters.
The iPad is the product of vision. Some person or group of people at Apple deeply imagined how people might best use a tablet device, as well as why, where, when and how often they might use such a device. They envisioned it, then built it.
I don't know anything about how the HP Slate came about, but it doesn't feel like the child of vision. It doesn't even work anything like it did in the preview videos that were circulating just a few months ago. It feels like a me-too, check-the-tablet-box kind of product, where some suit ordered the engineers to come up with an answer to the iPad to fill a perceived hole in the company's soup-to-nuts lineup of computing devices.
I'm not dismissing the HP Slate. I'm merely pointing out what it is: The HP Slate is a PC. I like PCs and use one every day. There's nothing wrong with a touch-based tablet PC. But there's also nothing new about it.
More importantly, I'm also pointing out what the HP Slate isn't: The HP Slate is not a post-PC, MPG, third-generation, super-usable, multimarket, App Store-model, visionary device.
So, everybody, please stop comparing it with the iPad.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.