Could your next music controller be a tablet or slate? Dell’s “concept” points the way to what that might look like, but the wait continues for more shipping products. Photo: Dell.

For all the focus on clever little music apps on your phone, it’s the slate/tablet form factor that seems to hold the greatest promise for live performance. Thanks to a larger screen area, these devices look far more usable for control – equipped with multi-touch, they could be reasonable substitutes for hardware control surfaces, a la the Lemur.And with greater horsepower under the hood, you might not need to use them as a controller – you could run an entire live gig off them.

With this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), many onlookers expected news on these devices, particularly as industry buzz anticipated a big announcement during Microsoft chairman Steve Ballmer’s keynote last night. And we got that news – sort of. Unfortunately, manufacturers teased “concepts” and prototypes, without much in the way of details – a repeat performance of 2009’s fuzzy glimpse at this device category.

That said, having been wrong about when it’ll happen, I’m still convinced we’re about to see a flood of new PC devices with interesting potential for music performance. Here’s what we’ve got so far:

Dell has a tablet “concept.” Dell’s own keynote included a brief mention of a five-inch tablet. That could make a nice form factor to stow on a keyboard or music stand as a controller. That’s about all it’ll do, as the pictures show only an audio output jack. But it will evidently have multitouch. This is only a “concept,” with no details publicly released; I’ll be following up with Dell if they announce an actual product. Photos:

Dell Tablet Concept [Flickr]

More on Dell’s new lineup (the rest of it is shipping, and may interest you more, anyway — Dell is taking advantage of wildly cheaper PC component prices to deliver some amazing machines under $1000)

HP’s Slate: Seen briefly in Ballmer’s CES keynote, the Slate is a “consumer notebook” in a slate form factor. The only good news relative to Dell’s model is that this is supposedly hardware that will ship. The bad news is, HP isn’t saying much else. The device does have a nice, sizable screen, at at least 10″ or larger (if my ability to tell the scale of things relative to Steve Ballmer’s torso is correct). That could make this an appealing alternative to other devices and form factors.

And, oh yeah, Apple: Here’s the power of Apple: PC makers, who have been shipping tablets for years, and who have shipped alternative form factors for years more, are accused of ripping off an Apple product that isn’t yet public, and about which most of us know nothing about (including, indeed, if it actually exists in the form we think it does). Not only that, but sight unseen, I’ve heard many people who assume that the Apple model of this currently-nonexistent product category will be superior, even though they don’t know what OS it’ll run, what it’ll do, what it’ll look like, what size it’ll be, or what it’ll cost. PC vendors, of course, had the opportunity to provide a clear alternative, and instead made their picture somewhat murky, too.

I don’t just mean Mac fanboys, either, who could be excused the pre-emptive positive review. Even The New York Times got in the act. Ashlee Vance of the NYT Bits blog wrote in advance of Ballmer’s speech:

It could be one of Steve Ballmer’s riskiest trade-show moves in years.

On Wednesday, Mr. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, will unveil a novel take on a slate-type computer … This product better be good because Apple is expected to unveil its take on the slate/tablet form factor later this month … The last thing Mr. Ballmer wants to hold up is a me-too device.

Yes, how dare he … announce … a product … that might compete with a product that no one has seen yet? What a risky move! (Deep thought: can a product be “me-too” even before there’s a “me,” or in this case, an “i”?)

That said, yes, most industry analysts expect an Apple announcement later this month. I’m skeptical about whether such an announcement will be useful to our audience, however. If Apple chooses its relatively locked-down iPhone-style operating system over the Mac OS, and if there’s no hardware input and output, and if the focus is buying magazines and books from iTunes, I think I’ll pass. Of course, some PC vendors may go a similar route.

And, in fairness, I’m sure part of what has prompted PC makers to unveil prototypes of non-shipping products is fears of what happens if Apple gets there first. It’s too bad Apple doesn’t leak a secret plan to solve global warming, or give away chocolates.

Android is a big winner. Murky as the slate announcements were, the one message that has been clear out of CES is that we’re going to see more of Android.
HP may even ship a version of HP Slate running the OS, says TechCrunch. Ordinarily, this would be relatively bad news; on Windows, you can run any music software, whereas Android is relatively limited. But I think that could improve, with open source controllers and work on porting free multimedia tools like Pd (Pure Data) and Processing.

Just keep in mind…


Dell’s XT2 is one of a new generation of more-powerful, multi-touch tablets. They have the maturity and pen functionality of previous pen tablets, but finally with more robust specs and multi-touch input to boot. That could mean the days of carrying a Lemur and a laptop are numbered. Photo: Dell USA.

Don’t forget “traditional” tablets for multi-touch. Sure, these smaller slates are interesting, apparently an attempt to blend the appeal of e-readers like Kindle and Nook with handhelds like the iPhone. But why carry a tablet and a laptop when a multitouch laptop could be both? Yep, tablet PCs are back, now with multi-touch input as well as pen. And their convertible form factor means you could have multi-touch control without your arms getting tired.

Case in point: Dell’s Latitude XT2 joins entries from Lenovo and HP. HP’s TouchSmart tm2 (as seen on Engadget) finally improves on HP’s previous, somewhat underpowered entry; I’ll be looking more closely at it. Also appealing: the HP is the first of these devices I’ve seen to pack discrete graphics, which could give you a machine with enough graphics muscle to do live visuals and video, plus music, all with multi-touch control and the I/O ports you’d expect on a laptop. It could be an all-in-one live performance beast if it pans out; I hope to check it out soon.


More analysis of the options – and why the upcoming battles could be a battle for computing’s soul:

Time to rethink – and restart – this whole idea? Designer Christophe Stoll asks that question visually; his textual commentary is linked below.

Gotta Be Mobile has long been a stalwart analyst of, and advocate for, the tablet PC. Here’s the surprise: even die-hard Tablet PC fans are skeptical about just what the new “tablet” or “slate” means. And the bigger surprise: even outside of the world of music and visualist sites like CDM, people are asking the question about whether the future of slate/tablet computing is passive consumption. Here’s Tablet PC MVP Warner Crocker writing for the blog:

Then there’s the question of what do we do with these things now that we seem to be on the threshold of seeing them everywhere? That boils down to content and in most cases that means consuming it, not creating it.

Floating on a Sea of Tablet Paradoxes

Christophe Stoll of precious, the Hamburg-based design firm responsible for everything from familiar soft synth user interfaces to rock band graphic looks, has similar skepticism. His take is even more far-reaching: in the midst of rabid gadget consumption, what about affordability, ecological impact, and truly open, community development? His first story looked at some of the shiny possibilities in the future:

The tablet innovation race: Three commented examples of what Tablet Computers could look like in the near future.

A follow-up story, however, responding to comments by me and others, wondered if a more open, sustainable, hype-free future could apply more intelligent design:
Tablet innovation race II: Some more critical thoughts regarding the ongoing hype around tablet computers.

Bottom line: by this time next year, I do expect that we’ll have some powerful, new, affordable solutions for multi-touch control and portable music and visual performance. Just what form that will take, though, isn’t much clearer now than it was this time last year. I hope that situation will change soon – and I hope Apple doesn’t prove to be the only company able to articulate a vision for the category.