When the HP TouchPad went on a $99 fire sale late last week, selling an estimated 350,000 units within a few hours, some members of the media speculated that the tablet's price could have been an issue. That argument was a bit silly since HP had already incurred an estimated bill of materials well above $200 per unit. A high per-unit cost and serious lack of sales combined to eventually lead the company to seek a means of simply getting rid of all its produced units before having to call 1-800-GOT-JUNK. If you were offered a genuine Armani suit for $99, you may very likely buy it, even if you didn't need it. Why? Because you'd know you were getting it a rock-bottom price. The same reasoning applies to the $99 TouchPad. (Though it could be argued which would actually see more use - the suit or the TouchPad?)
The recent high sales numbers alone are unlikely to change HP's mind about the TouchPad's eventual fate. The fact those sales numbers only came during an apparent fire sale does not mean that the TouchPad was simply a good tablet at the wrong price. What it does mean, however, is that it was an ill-conceived product missing critical features that could have made it a big success at its original price. One such critical feature is platform support, which by itself qualifies the TouchPad as one of the five biggest tablet blunders in my mind. Here are four other product ideas that suffered from buyer neglect and eventually ended up in the black hole of computer history.
Palm Foleo (2007)
The Palm Foleo had all the genes to make it a success, including the vision of Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the Palm Pilot PDA. It was essentially the original idea for the netbook, but it was announced at a time when end-users had no idea why they might need a netbook. With some imagination, it carried some aspects found in the Blackberry Playbook as well, as it was meant to be a companion for Palm's Treo smartphones. However, when it was announced in 2007, the Foleo was a device no one could really explain. It was Palm’s idea to sell you a $500 device that would extend your smartphone to a compact, notebook-sized device featuring a keyboard and 10" screen.
The Foleo looked like a small laptop computer, but it didn’t act like one. Its functionality and usage were much closer to that of a smartphone, only you couldn’t actually use it to make any calls. As an extension for your Treo smartphone, you could have used the Foleo's keyboard and the 10” screen to view presentations or create documents instead of using your (smaller) Treo. The Foleo did have built-in Wi-Fi, so you could have also browsed the web. That is, if there were a hotspot available. (Hotspots were not nearly as common in 2007 as they are today.) The biggest problem was that you could not have used the smart phone as a modem, and the Foleo lacked a built-in cellular chip of its own. That killed the entire possibility of using it as an ultra-mobile device for business trips.
Palm pulled the plug on the Foleo days before the first devices would have shipped.
The UMPC was supposed to be the device that would reshape mobile computing by placing an Internet-connected computer in your pocket. Whether in the subway or climbing Mount Everest, the Internet was always at arm's length. Well, that was the idea put forth by Microsoft's marketing department. Unfortunately, they forgot to ask UMPC engineers (especially Intel's engineers) whether that was even possible. It was not.
The UMPC ended up as an underpowered, heavy, expensive and clumsy computer no one outside the markets of vertical industries and field engineers really wanted. (Even some of those engineers are now replacing UMPCs with modern tablets.) They had funny keyboards, heavy hard drives, a rather useless version of Windows XP (a multimedia-only "AVS mode" ), and price tags which ranged from $1000 on the lower end (such as the Samsung Q1) to more than $2000 at the high-end (the OQO Model 01 or 01+ from [now defunct] OQO). The UMPC came to epitomize the classic example of marketing ignoring reality. While you can still buy UMPCs today, this segment is now irrelevant.
3Com Audrey (2001)
I have a secret love affair with Audrey. It was the first tablet I ever used (Apple's Newton/MessagePad and early PDAs aside). I still believe it was an idea that was somehow misguided by the dotcom boom and the (all too common at the time) belief that anything bearing an AOL label would sell for at least $500.
Audrey was a retro-designed, kitchen-white 5-inch tablet with an antenna (no wireless Internet access, though) that came accompanied by a small, matching kitchen-white wireless keyboard. With no battery, it required a wired power adapter, so it wasn't operationally portable. Portability (and flexibility) further suffered because it also required a phone line to establish a 56 Kbps dial-up Internet connection.
The Audrey was sold for only seven months, reportedly selling fewer than 500 units in the U.S. My antique-looking personal Audrey still looks appropriate when sitting next to my Kerbango Internet radio. (Kerbango was the first company to produce Internet radios not requiring a separate computer. Kerbango was acquired by 3Com in 2000, and later shut down.)
Be Webpad (2000)
Listing the Be Webpad as a failure is somewhat cruel as it was the only original tablet released during the dotcom boom that got everything right. (Right as far as technologies available at the time are concerned.) However, it missed the big opportunity Apple took advantage of with the iPad. How much more of a blunder can it be?
Personally, I believe that Apple considered failed webpads when creating the iPad by looking into the past at products that worked, and those that didn't. The Be pad may have be one particular product Apple examined very carefully. (Interestingly, Be's CEO at the time, Jean-Louis Gassee, was a former Apple executive.) The Be Webpad was lightweight, had Wi-Fi built-in, a battery, as well as a TFT touchscreen and even BeIA (Be Inc.'s multimedia operating system that was streamlined for use on Internet appliances). Unfortunately, Be had no financial backing and only months to find someone who would license BeIA in order to get the Be Webpad out into the market. Sony was their only customer, who did license BeIA for its eVilla Internet appliance. Sadly, eVilla Internet appliances never shipped in significant numbers.
If there is a predecessor of the modern tablet, then it surely is the Be Webpad.