The 2010 Consumer Electronics Show has wrapped up, leaving the HP 3000 community with a reminder of how the industry deals with innovation so real you can touch it. HP's tablet computers made a fresh entry to the marketplace at CES, but the game-changing HP tablet running Microsoft's Courier was not among these entries. Some were looking to Microsoft and HP to release a product as unique as the HP-150 Touchscreen PC was in 1983 and 1984.
Sometimes, however, unique can be a dead weight instead of the balloon to lift innovation above the clouds. The trick to avoiding this dead-end is to provide critical mass on introduction. It's very slippery to grasp this brass ring, as HP learned with the architecture that drives all futures for HP-UX. The touch and tablet talk of this week is reminding me of the Touchscreen.
Among all the world's computer customers in 1984, HP 3000 DP managers knew the above product best. These were the years when a PC instead of a terminal was a gamble in the office environment, the place where the majority of computing dollars were spent. The Touchscreen was too far ahead of its time to change the game in personal computing (that's what PC stands for, by the way.) However, it was the Touchscreen's software partner plan that doomed the device that was popular in 3000 shops for its built-in terminal software. Hardware and OS were minimal roadblocks by comparison. What was missing was critical mass.
This disconnect between critical mass and computer wizardry remains a caution for your community today, even though HP's technology prowess and partnership skills have improved as much as the photos of these products show. When HP and Microsoft lure the markets into a forecast of changing the interface for computing, the language sounds a lot like the HP-Intel promises of domination by Itanium. HP-UX adopters, take note: your environment's critical mass rides on Itanium adoption. Not even two of the largest computer companies innovating together in the 1990s could make that mass appear.
Technical superiority is the least part of the success equation. The most important component is relationships with companies, partners who believe in the rising tide of Natural Human Interface. Shown here is the rolodex card replacement app that was running on the Touchscreen. HP wrote it, sold it, ran it on the 9-inch Touchscreen. Few companies chose to write software for this interface. NHI will replace GUI as the brass ring for leading user interface. Not the stylus of the Courier concept, mixed with human gestures touching the screen. All touch. Microsoft's attempt to change the game, powered by HP's technology, seems as sketchy as 1984's novel interface that was missing apps and critical mass from its opening frames.
The thing about new technologies, or computer solutions that include software plans, is that they get old. Some quickly, some not so fast. But some show up mortally wounded by a sound technical choice that strays too far from the herd. For the Touchscreen PC, the mortal wound was inside its OS. It didn't support the widest range of software in 1983: MS-DOS. That meant that "killer apps" like Lotus 1-2-3 or dBase were many months away from staying in touch.
More than a quarter century later, the rules haven't changed, even if the technology has made quantum leaps. A tablet computer is going to need something special to run on it, something that will make the market walk away from the herd -- in this case, laptop computers. Microsoft thinks that Windows 7 will bring the app providers to HP's latest touchscreen today. And at some tomorrow? That lure is the Microsoft Courier interface and OS. Microsoft assumes that the Windows 7 similarities will provide critical mass.
HP assumed that the similarities to x86 architecture in Itanium would bring along Windows developers. Not enough similarities emerged, in 1984, 15 years later with Itanium, and perhaps not in the future for the Courier platform. And just like the HP Touchscreen failure, the company is facing an outsider's challenge. Compaq was in the wings in the middle 80s to deliver the link to critical mass that HP had omitted, MS-DOS compatibility and BIOS emulation. This year it's Apple that will make a critical mass driven product to compete with Courier and HP's slate PCs.
History does not always repeat itself, but assumptions of instant critical mass need marketing and delivery chain ready on Day One. Apple's iPod took over with the iTunes store and its iPhone soared with an App Store. Itanium never got inside partners' plans in the same way, so now it's become a niche instead of a game-changer. Consumer markets behave differently than enterprise computer markets in most ways except one. They both crave critical mass, an element that HP 3000 customers needed HP to nurture and spark to avoid the vendor's exit.