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PC Makers Still Can’t Understand Simple

While the IFA trade show plays out in Berlin this week, you have to wonder just what great innovations will be on display from the PC and smartphone makers. In case you don’t follow the tech world too closely, IFA is the European equivalent of America’s Consumer Electronics Show, so you can expect loads of exhibitors presenting everything from new wireless handsets to home appliances.

With Windows 8 on the horizon, PC box makers touting their wares are hoping to entice customers to buy new computers during the holiday season. But when you look at the proposed offerings, you have to wonder where they get the idea that any of it is going to sell.

Coming off a huge defeat in their patent dispute with Apple, Samsung is now displaying something called the Series 7 Slate PC. Slate, by the way, is a PC label for products that are meant to, at least sometimes, serve the function of a tablet, but somehow haven’t earned that label. At first, the Series 7 Slate appears to be just another slim note-book, but it’s also a convertible, because the display can be separated from the keyboard. These awkward devices also come with an S-Pen, which is Samsung’s answer to a pressure-sensitive stylus.

Now as a practical matter, the Series 7 Slate is actually not so new. It first arrived last fall to tepid reviews, but with Windows 8 on the horizon, Samsung is giving the thing another chance. There are two basic model lineups, both with 11.6-inch displays. A $749 version ships with Intel’s entry-level Atom processor. An $1,199 version includes an Intel Core i5.

In fact, you get the impression that the Series 7 Slate is really just another variation on the Ultrabook theme. Ultrabook is Intel’s reference platform for slim and light note-books that are meant to compete with the MacBook Air. Only the MacBook Air has been a tremendous success ever since Apple revised the layout, and began to sell them for a starting price of $999. Even though some Ultrabooks, such as the Series 7 Slate, are cheaper than a MacBook Air in one form or another, they don’t sell very well.

At first, this seems strange. I mean, the basic Ultrabook form factor is slim, light, and decently attractive. OEMs are free to modify the basic trade dress, and add features that will separate them from the pack. That’s why some Ultrabooks, such as the ones from Samsung, are hybrid or convertible tablets, as if anyone is interested. It’s not as if removable screens have generated very much business over the years. But perhaps the PC makers are hoping to hit a home run because of one difference.

And that’s Windows 8.

When Windows 8 arrives this fall, PC makers are hoping their discarded product concepts will magically become relevant, hoping against hope that tens of millions of PC users will be ready to buy new computers on which Windows 8 is preloaded.

But as I’ve said before, Windows 8 won’t arrive with near the buzz of previous versions of Windows. Even Windows Vista, regarded as a major misstep for Microsoft, earned better reviews ahead of its release. With Windows 8, more and more tech reviewers are explaining in exquisite detail why they just can’t get into it. It’s not just the flat tiles generated by the interface formerly known as Metro. It’s the poor integration between the new interface and the old. Such Modern UI apps as Mail are stripped of core features that make the app even unacceptable in a child’s computer.

In fact, you get the impression that Windows 8 has a look and feel that would at home in a toy computer, and it may take a while for you to realize that it’s meant to serve as Microsoft’s operating system for the future, and that the main audience consists of adults.

Now forgetting the plusses and minuses of Windows 8, consider the plight of the PC makers who keep dusting off the same old failed concepts, believing that a few flashy TV ads will convince the unsuspecting public that they have built something new, different, innovative. Well, at least different.

Of course, this is the same tact taken by the wireless handset makers. Forgetting the clear similarities between a Samsung smartphone and an iPhone, it’s also true that the former delivers many models with different screen sizes and hardware layouts. Some even include a stylus, and are meant to serve as mini tablets rather than telephones. Certainly Samsung sells a lot of product, even though the profits are less than Apple, and the sales are distributed among countless models.

But there will come a time when the smartphone marketplace will be as saturated as the PC landscape. It will happen a lot faster, since so many smartphones are being sold each and every quarter. Soon, more and more customers will be upgraders rather than first-time buyers, and tech companies will be fighting over reduced profit margins to eke out as much market share as possible.

But if Apple continues to follow the same playback, they’ll get their share of profits, even if other companies sell more. And, unless things drastically change, model lineups will be limited, and OS features will be reasonably easy to master. And I will continue to wonder why other companies still fail to understand what the word simple really means.