HP tries to reverse past tablet failures with ElitePad 900

HP is putting the ElitePad 900 through extensive testing before shipping

Hewlett-Packard is rebooting its tablet strategy with the ElitePad 900, but faces challenges as it tries to overcome past tablet failures and deals with the slow adoption of the Windows 8 OS, analysts said.

The ElitePad 900 business tablet was originally announced on Oct. 1 and is the first product in HP's retooled tablet strategy, which revolves around Windows. HP's see-saw tablet strategy has seen many failures, with predecessors to the ElitePad 900 -- the Slate and Slate 2 -- unable to find wide acceptance.

HP's abrupt discontinuation of mobile devices based on the webOS operating system also raised questions about the company's commitment to tablets. But HP is trying to reestablish itself in the tablet market with Windows 8, which is off to a slow start, analysts said. The ElitePad 900 is targeted at businesses, but the new OS is targeted at consumers, creating a mismatch that could hurt HP's tablet sales, analysts said.

The tablet, which is being displayed at the International CES show this week in Las Vegas, has a 10.1-inch screen that can display images at a 1280-by-800-pixel resolution. The tablet weighs about 680 grams and is 9.2 millimeters thick. Some enterprise-specific features include the ability to easily disassemble the tablet to replace components, which helps reduce hardware and support costs.

HP is putting the ElitePad 900 through extensive testing before it ships in late January starting at US$649. Starting in December, the company has sent out test units to 3,000 customers, with some prominent test customers including Emirates Airlines.

The early evaluation program was only 200 to 300 units, but was expanded after growing interest in the product, said Ajay Gupta, director of commercial notebook products at HP. This is one of HP's largest testing programs yet, and the first customers engaged in testing belonged to some of the company's big accounts.

"We have been talking to customers, showing them prototypes, ideas, spec choices that we are making," Gupta said. "It's a very important product for HP, there's no denying it."

The initial ElitePad 900 product will perhaps go out as it is, but customer feedback will help shape future tablet designs, Gupta said.

"We work with engineering very closely in figuring out what's feasible," Gupta said.

With such an extensive testing program HP perhaps wants to avoid the debacles like the ones surrounding the Slate 2 and webOS, and also to make certain that the ElitePad's design and features resonate with clients, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

HP's adoption of webOS caused tension with Microsoft, with the software maker being upset at HP's development of a tablet with a non-Windows OS. Now that has changed, and the question remains if customers will buy into Windows 8, which is largely a consumer OS, King said.

"The next few months will provide a litmus test for whether Microsoft and partners, including HP, can successfully make the case for Windows 8 in the enterprise. Unfortunately, some other issues, including economic conditions, are likely to play wild card roles in the adoption of Windows 8 tablets and other devices," King said.

PC makers often test products before launch, but the ElitePad 900 testing program does seem a little large given that the hardware isn't cheap, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

"HP's customers are watching carefully for signs of unsteadiness after a number of mistakes and reversals. That having been said, HP doesn't face any greater hurdle than other hardware [makers] trying to popularize Windows 8 tablets," Kay said.

Windows 8 may end up being something just short of a disaster as consumers are confused by the positioning of Windows 8, which is a touch-based OS but can also be used with keyboard and mouse, Kay noted. Businesses are also always cautious with new operating systems, and it won't be any different with Windows 8, Kay said.

"That having been said, HP is aiming at corporate customers with the ElitePad 900, and some companies are looking at ways to deploy Windows tablets among highly mobile personnel. This is one of the few promising areas for Windows 8 deployment," Kay said.

The analysts agreed that HP will take a cautious approach to the market as it does not want to repeat past mistakes.

"The new tablet's options, including 32GB of extra storage for $50 and integrated broadband and GPS for $100, suggest HP understands that business users and use cases come in more than one size. It'll be interesting to see whether the customers and markets the ElitePad was designed for react as HP hopes," Pund-IT's King said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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