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Slate PCs: fad failure or future form factor?

LaptopsAlong with roughly 4,000 assorted hacks, geeks and fanboys I had the 'pleasure' of attending Steve Ballmer's opening keynote at CES this year. I arrived waiting for the 'big idea'... and left in much the same way. Also, I was jetlagged. Reader, I was whelmed.

Ballmer informed us that this year's big idea is going to be 'Slate PCs'. Dual-screen portables with detachable tablets. But of detail there was none, save for the fact that HP has one in development. Look: shiny.

Big stage, lots of hype, little substance

We've been here before. Bill Gates spent his later Microsoft career espousing the virtues of the lesser-spotted Tablet PC, and not so long ago Microsoft tried to convince us the future was touchscreen table-top PCs that look like 80s Pacman machines. It really wasn't.

Talking up technologies creates headlines and builds the perception that Microsoft is an innovator, shaping the PC market. Saying so little at a global event showcasing new products sends a different, subtler message.

Later, in a dark, anonymous corner at CES a spokesman for a multinational PC manufacturer told me that after Vista Microsoft has changed. He said the software giant was now more humble, flexible, and prepared to listen to hardware vendors.

Because computer makers depend on keeping the customer satisfied, this means that PC evolution is now to a much greater extent being driven by consumer demand.

Windows 7 is sufficiently flexible to support a vast array of devices. PC makers can quickly meet the needs of a host of purchasers - and they can do it all in a single Slate PC. Portable media player and e-book reader, home entertainment centre, workstation, touchscreen web-browser... you can have it all and, due to Win7's netbook credentials, you needn't go broke to get it.

This time next year the term 'Slate PC' may be a joke or it may be a staple. But the underlying trends of flexibility and diversity are here to stay. And that really is a big idea.

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