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Hewlett Packard is cranking up its marketing machine for the Slate 500, a Windows 7 tablet PC that faces a murky future as HP prepares to launch its WebOS TouchPad tablet this summer.

In a promotional e-mail for the Slate 500 that went out this week, HP's sales pitch to would-be customers goes like this: "Do you have yours yet? No? Why Not?" It's an ironic approach given that HP ran into Slate 500 supply problems last November that delayed shipments for six weeks. Some customers posting recently to HP's product support forums claim to have waited several months for theirs to arrive.

HP didn't respond to a request for comment on whether the Slate 500 e-mail represents a renewed push to drum up interest in the product. HP's Web site currently shows an April 27 ship date for the Slate 500, so the company appears to have at least dealt with the supply shortage.

The Slate 500, which comes with a 1.86-GHz Intel Atom Z540 processor and 8.9-inch, LED-backlit display, debuted at CES 2010 when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off a prototype in his keynote. But a few months later, HP acquired Palm for $1.2 billion and set out in a new mobile direction with WebOS. When the Slate 500 hit the market in October, its $799 price tag raised eyebrows, and not in a good way.

Since the Palm deal, HP executives have insisted that Windows 7 would continue to play a role in HP's tablet plans, but the fact that HP didn't mention the Slate 500 at its Americas Partner Conference last month makes those claims ring hollow.

Meanwhile, HP spent a ton of time at APC talking about and showing off the forthcoming TouchPad WebOS tablet. Gurpreet Kaur, an analyst at Gap Intelligence, a San Diego-based research firm that follows HP, sees the Slate 500 as a measure on HP's part intended to help Microsoft save face. "Windows 7 is not meant for tablets. The touch capabilities are bad and battery life is short," she said.

Microsoft is reportedly working to make the next version of Windows tablet friendly, but that release isn't expected until next year at the earliest. In the meantime, other vendors are continuing to roll out Windows 7 tablets. Asus began shipping its Eee Slate EP121 tablet in February, and Acer on Tuesday launched the Windows 7 version of its Iconia tablet. Dell, meanwhile, is reportedly planning to release a Windows 7 tablet this fall.

At this stage, OEMs are moving forward with Windows 7 tablets but appear to be doing so with a minimum of fanfare, Kaur said. "Windows 7 tablets will be low-key affairs with distribution limited to IT channels and with a B2B selling focus," she said.

It's unlikely that Windows 7 tablets are going to give Apple and Google much of a challenge in the tablet space, but some Microsoft partners are still confident that devices like the Slate 500 will find their niche.


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Andrew Brust, CEO of Microsoft (NSDQ:MSFT) analyst firm Blue Badge Insights, based in New York City, says Windows 7 tablets can deliver value in highly customized environments with applications explicitly designed for touch.

Brust cites the example of Silverlight line-of-business applications built in the upcoming Visual Studio LightSwitch product using a touch-friendly shell extension, something Microsoft has already demoed in prototype form. "In this context, and in a situation where field portability were required, the Slate 500 could work very well," he said. "Building apps in LightSwitch would be far more productive than, say, building a native iOS app for the iPad."

Microsoft's massive developer army means anything is possible when it comes to the apps that run on Windows 7 tablets. But HP is also urging its partners to build applications in WebOS, and it's planning to offer market development funds, volume programs, big deal registration and practice development to the VARs that heed its call.

At APC last month, Todd Bradley, executive vice president of HP (NYSE:HPQ)'s Personal Systems Group, described WebOS as a strategic asset that HP plans to use to build an ecosystem around consumers, small business and enterprises. "WebOS is an opportunity to leapfrog the traditional Wintel ecosystem," Bradley said at the event.

Seen in this light, it's tough to see HP becoming a major cheerleader for Windows 7 tablets. Bob Venero, president and CEO of Future Tech, a Holbrook, N.Y. solution provider, says the touch limitations of Windows, and the impressive design and functionality of WebOS, suggest that devices like the Slate 500 will always occupy second tier status within HP's product portfolio.

"Is HP going to tie its success in tablets to Microsoft? Obviously not," Venero said. "HP placed a big bet on WebOS and I think that's the horse they're going to back."