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Can a tablet David take on the Apple Goliath?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:39 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010

Everyone loves a David-and-Goliath story, don't they? And for sheer audacity a tiny business formed this year called Exo PC has to be applauded. After all, it's hoping that its 11 staff can take on the mighty Apple with a product that claims to be better than the iPad.

When a man called Kevin Dark got in touch a week ago and asked me to take a look at a new tablet computer, I have to confess I had to stifle a yawn. Suddenly, everyone and his brother is bringing out a tablet, and promising that it can beat the iPad. What's more, the machine ran on Windows 7, which doesn't seem optimised for tablet use at the moment.

But I always enjoy playing with a new gadget, and I was also intrigued by the firm behind it. Exo PC was formed in January 2010 by two Canadians, and is primarily a software company. One of the founders had an idea 10 years ago for a touch-based user interface for a Windows machine, but struggled to find the hardware.

Now the company has found that hardware, and, according to Mr Dark, has built an enthusiastic online community to support the idea of the Exo PC. So I arranged to get my hands on one.

The first thing that strikes you when you lift the slate out of its box is the sheer size and weight of it - some people find the iPad too heavy, but this is is bigger and weightier.

Turn it on and you first see a classic Windows 7 startup and desktop; then you find that special Exo PC user interface which has been 10 years in the making.

Screengrab of Exo PC tablet desktop

A series of bubbles are ranged across the screen, each occupied by an icon. I thought at first these might be apps, but most are simply links to web pages, although there are a few simple games. Kevin Dark tells me that you can simply install Windows software on the tablet, and that developers are starting to build apps for it too.

I quickly managed to do three things that are impossible - or at least challenging - on an iPad. First, I clicked on the iPlayer link on the home screen and found that I was able to watch live television on the Exo PC; on an iPad, that's only possible if you go to a site called TV Catchup.

Watching TV on the Exo PC tablet

Then I realised that the tablet had a tiny forward-facing camera, and had Skype pre-installed, so within minutes I was on a video call to a friend. There's no camera on an iPad - though surely that must be coming in the next version.

And finally I went to the BBC website and watched a couple of videos - on an iPad I would have been told to install Flash, which would then prove impossible.

The Exo PC also has all manner of ports - HDMI, USB, and SD card reader - making it far more connected than an iPad.

The touchscreen interface is more responsive than on some other tablets I've tried. You can plug in a DVD player and watch a movie on the 11-inch screen, and generally do most of the things that you could on a netbook computer.

Pretty impressive - but I still have to confess that I wasn't really wowed by the Exo PC. I found it a slightly cumbersome mixture of Windows machine and media tablet. Without the wide range of easy-to-use apps that you get on an iPad or Samsung's Galaxy Tab, you're left with a very heavy surfing device that isn't as intuitive to use as those two - and with a four-hour battery life that means you can't leave home without a charger.

One thing that Kevin Dark told me provides a clue to my misgivings:

"Our hardware may not be as 'pretty' as the iPad, but we believe most people know that choosing functionality over aesthetics is the better option in the long run."

I think that misses the point. Form and function are inextricably linked - iPad users find the look of their tablet "pretty", but also enjoy the beauty of the way it functions.

Still, the Exo PC, which is already on sale in parts of Europe, will be coming to the UK soon, with prices roughly the same as an iPad for equivalent storage.

Then we will see whether there is a market for a tablet running Windows 7. At the moment, I'm sceptical, but if this tiny firm can work with Microsoft to produce a rather prettier experience, then maybe the Exo PC can score a few hits on the Goliath that is Apple.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    First! Apple ipad is not the be all and end all of gadgets. Others will beat it as the iphone has proved. Once again i am first:)

  • Comment number 2.

    What's the matter Rory? It might not look as pretty (secondary IMHO) but if it does more than the iPad does now, whether or not the iPad will have this in its next edition (more expense), what do you think Exo PC will have in its next release?
    More Apple bias. Every other post here is about an Apple product. Apple might be releasing new products and making them look pretty but it is destroying open source with its insular methodologies and overly stringent apps release strategy.
    I would rather have an IBM compatible PC that I can mess about with and upgrade to my heart's content and that has a vast amount of recognisable software available to it than a work of art on my desktop that looks pretty but is limited by its parent company's hardline stance on web add-ins such as Flash player.
    I buy for function over form every time.

  • Comment number 3.

    Nothing stands a chance against Apple while everyone else in industry panders to it. Wander into your local electronics store. How many 3rd party iPod / iPhone docks are there. How many are there for other MP3 players or phones?

    The BBC is quite happy to provide non-Flash iPlayer access to iPads and iPhones, but refuses to do the same for Android devices that cannot use Flash (and shuts down 3rd party applications that do provide iPlayer access).

    BT are currently running an advert for their broadband service that exclusively features Apple products (iPhones and iPads). Indeed, I thought it was an Apple advert until the "My Family" guy appeared.

    As long as industry continues with this love affair for all things Apple, nothing will stop the Apple juggernaut. And the BBC is as guilty of this as anyone.

  • Comment number 4.

    I first heard of the ExoPC about 3 months ago when a friend was showing me what he'd just paid quite a hefty sum.

    I have no idea if it's arrived with him yet, but there was one function that Rory didn't mention in his article that the ExoPC (and any other Windows 7 tablet does well)...

    ... working with your home Windows 7 media server.

    I'm not the most home entertainment savvy person; I have a laptop connected to my TV and FreeSat but that's about it and these are only to let me watch iPlayer/4OD and Welsh Language TV.

    But it does seem a good reason for owning a Windows 7 tablet. Unless my friend is wrong and you can control Windows 7 with an iPad / Android tablet?

  • Comment number 5.

    "we believe most people know that choosing functionality over aesthetics is the better option in the long run."

    Sure. That's why all cars still have crank handles on the front, and all motorcycles still come with kick-starts - because consumers would far rather have the certainly of being able to start their vehicle using sheer muscle power and perspiration, as opposed to having to rely on an electric motor and the turn of a key...

    Some of these businesses have a sales pitch that would have been prefect, if only the Warsaw Pact had never collapsed. This clunker's selling point, appears to be that it runs Flash - is that right? Let me see... Isn't there some other way of getting a tablet PC with Flash on it?

    If the race looks like it's between McLaren OR Ferrari, then - by all means - bet on Lada, if it makes you feel like you're being different and original; just don't expect to be next week's news.

    Windows 7 tablet? keep taking the tablets!

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    I thought the BBC didn't carry adverts?

  • Comment number 8.

    Wow a new device to do something else with. How wonderful we are. I can now look up the weather from my chair instead of looking out the window. Progress, can't live without it.

  • Comment number 9.

    My its been a long time.

    There should be more of the articles on the BBC. As a public service provider the BBC should service the publics desire for all things new. I can not wait for blogs on new kitchen appliances, lawn mowers and light fittings. And don't getting me thinking of reviews of kitchen towel absorbtion rates.

  • Comment number 10.

    Let's not forget that Apple's canniest promotion so far is to offer a significant discount on all its products to members of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) - around 20%-30%.

    Therefore most media types are likely to be using G4s, Ipads etc and likely to be fans..which is why most mentions of Apple products in the press are complimentary - not so in the above article, so kudos, Rory.

    Fun game - try to spot a normal PC in any mainstream drama or comedy. You may need to return to reruns of Byker Grove to do so!

  • Comment number 11.

    Didn't tablet PCs like this launch 3 years ago?
    I appreciate the struggle this company has gone through, but 5 minutes in dragons den would have told them not to bother.

    Ps iplayer works fine on my iPad

  • Comment number 12.

    What a bizarre set of comments!

    There's little doubt that Apple have brought the tablet form factor to everyone's attention. And it's going to be interesting to see how the market settles in terms of popular sizes, operating systems, and function. Apple appear unwilling to make anything smaller than the iPad, they certainly won't put Flash on any iOS device, and they don't seem to want to provide a full desktop OS on a tablet. If Apple are wrong, and the public really do want any of these things in significant numbers, the iPad will eventually become a minor player. More likely Apple have got it right, and the real competition will be iPad sized tablets running an OS well-suited to a touch screen of that size. Which may be iOS, or a future version of Android, or even Windows Phone 7 or the RIM OS.

    It's interesting how many people claim to favour "function over form". If it does the job, it doesn't matter how it looks, or how heavy it is, or how short the battery life, or how non-intuitive or clunky it is to use. I guess these are the sort of people who don't take much care over what their clothes look like, and are happy to drive around in an old Ford Fiesta. I'm happy for them to do this, but I'm also glad there are people who can appreciate style and good design, whether it be in clothes, cars, or electronic gadgets.

    As for those who continue to claim that they don't know what an iPad is for, they are either disingenuous or unimaginative. We all know perfectly well what the iPad is for. The issue is that most of us already have something (a phone or a laptop) that does all these things. But the iPad may potentially do these things better, because of its size and ease of use.

  • Comment number 13.

    Wasn't too long ago that Apple was David to IBM's Goliath (Ridley Scott's '1984' commercial, and all that). Then it went through a decade of doldrums, with CEOs who thought product design was cosmetic tinkering - and no computer would ever be interested in it. Then back came Jobs, who always understood the value of design, and in came Jony Ive, and the rest is history. Indeed such compelling history that the very fact that this post can headline with 'Apple Goliath' is testimony to the sheer commercial power of style. Something that no other company in the computer hardware, mobile telephony or music player business is yet able to grasp - much to the considerable detriment of their shareholders.

  • Comment number 14.

    Good lord, these anti-Apple zealots are a tedious lot. serendiptiy [shurely shome mishtake - Ed.] and camyeoerfraefrance absolutely hit the nail on the head. And all the me-too products will always exist but will always struggle without the providing the whole integrated hardware/software ecosystem that Apple provides. It will take Android/Windows years to catch up Apple; without the whole picture available to them, they will always struggle.

  • Comment number 15.

    All the comments are good and valid, yes there are much better tablets out there. But you are all forgetting one thing, people's mindset over a apple product and any other product are totally opposite. If apple brought out a card board box, with a stylish symbol of the apple logo on it. People would still buy it, Why? Again people know that there are better or equal products out there. But apple has set the "mark", with the 1st iphone and now the ipad. The logo and name is also a status symbol and to prove this, if I came up to some one in the street and said I had a XYZ phone. They would go either yes, most probably no, but if you said to the same person a iphone/ipad. Without a shadow of a doubt,they would know what I was on about. Some may say marketing did it, but apple didn't have to, the media did it for them.
    Unless company's follow what apple has/is doing, all you will ever get is companies trying to get on to the money train after it has departed.

  • Comment number 16.

    Kevin McKenna repeats something else I've heard quite often - that people would buy anything with the Apple logo on it. In fact, a great many of Apple's products do not sell in great numbers - wireless base stations, Apple TVs, etc. If you think people are stupid enough to buy an unsuitable or inferior phone, or tablet, or laptop, just because it was made by Apple then I fear you are living in cloud cuckoo land. I have a lot of Apple products, but I also have products from many other companies. All chosen after some research and consideration, not all perfect, and some definitely mistakes.

    Kevin is probably right that the iPhone and iPad are widely recognised brands - but so are Nokia and Sony Ericsson. Part of the recognition of the iPhone or iPad is the fact there is essentially one iPhone, but a wide range of Nokia phones. If you tell someone you've got a Nokia N97 they may not immediately know what you mean (and I had to Bing that to get a valid Nokia product name!).

  • Comment number 17.

    realityleak wrote:

    "What's the matter Rory? It might not look as pretty (secondary IMHO) but if it does more than the iPad does now, whether or not the iPad will have this in its next edition (more expense), what do you think Exo PC will have in its next release?"

    As he explained, it may do more but what's the point if the entire user experience is lacking?

    What makes you think the next iPad will be any more expensive?

    "More Apple bias. Every other post here is about an Apple product."

    That's because their products are doing so well.

    "Apple might be releasing new products and making them look pretty but it is destroying open source with its insular methodologies and overly stringent apps release strategy."

    Why, because of a lack of Flash? Since when is Flash open source in the true sense of the word?

    Stringent apps release strategy? Good, that just means a high level of quality is maintained in the app store!

    "I would rather have an IBM compatible PC that I can mess about with and upgrade to my heart's content and that has a vast amount of recognisable software available to it than a work of art on my desktop that looks pretty but is limited by its parent company's hardline stance on web add-ins such as Flash player."

    You are talking about a traditional computer, not a modern tablet running a tablet operating system and what this topic is about!

    Apple **computers** are NOT "limited" when it comes to Flash! All Apple computers can and do run Flash, including this iMac I am typing on! Once again, we are talking about tablets.

    "I buy for function over form every time."

    So you would buy a tablet running Windows when Windows is obviously not a tablet/touch operating system? How would that function? If you can't effectively use a tablet no matter what kind of hardware features it has then how does it then function?

  • Comment number 18.

    serendiptiy wrote:

    "Then back came Jobs, who always understood the value of design, and in came Jony Ive, and the rest is history."

    Since when did Ive become the sole designer at Apple? Many people work at designing Apple products, including, I would bet, Jobs himself. Lets not get carried away in the typical British manner of extending excessive credit to someone just because that someone is British.

  • Comment number 19.

    Kevin McKenna wrote:

    "All the comments are good and valid, yes there are much better tablets out there. But you are all forgetting one thing, people's mindset over a apple product and any other product are totally opposite. If apple brought out a card board box, with a stylish symbol of the apple logo on it. People would still buy it, Why? Again people know that there are better or equal products out there. But apple has set the "mark", with the 1st iphone and now the ipad. The logo and name is also a status symbol and to prove this, if I came up to some one in the street and said I had a XYZ phone. They would go either yes, most probably no, but if you said to the same person a iphone/ipad. Without a shadow of a doubt,they would know what I was on about. Some may say marketing did it, but apple didn't have to, the media did it for them."

    So basically what you are saying is you know better than all the millions of Apple customers. Why not save yourself all that typing and simply call Apple customers stupid?


  • Comment number 20.

    Another day... another iSomething post... and another outing for the zealots (on both sides)...

  • Comment number 21.

    AllenT2 wrote:

    "Since when did Ive become the sole designer at Apple?..."

    Actually, in this case, Serendipity is quite right to credit Jony Ive with most of the Apple designs. Jonathan ive currently heads the Industrial Design team at Apple, and is credited with being the principle person responsible for the design of the iMac, aluminium and titanium Powerbook G4, MacBook, MacBook Air, unibody MacBook Pro, iPod, iPhone and iPad. It is primarily because his designs embody what people perceive to be the Apple brand that he is fingered to replace Steve Jobs as CEO when the turtle-necked one eventually steps down.

  • Comment number 22.

    Hmmm...Rory have you ever used an iPad?

    To use BBC iPlayer you just go to iPlayer in Safari and...low and behold it just works...and beautifully too. Watching iPlayer on an iPad is a joy. I know half a dozen people that bought iPad's purely on the basis that iPlayer was just unbelievably great on it.

    ...and no I dont own an iPad at all...so am not a 'FanBoi' !

    Andrew

  • Comment number 23.

    Apps? Apps are the Apple marketing name invention. these are programmes. and what operating system in this Earth has the most available programmes? Well it seems Microsoft Windows does. if the pad supports MS Windows it has millions of programmes out there available for it. a lot of them are opensource.

    With all the plug-ins available on the pad it could mean you could just plug in your game pad for example and play propper PC games on it. And all this on the go....

    they might increase the batterly later on or since this is not apple a better (stronger) cheap generic ones might be available for it.

    i checked their specifications and this seems to be a netbook without keyboard.

  • Comment number 24.

    I agree with comment 23 above about the availability of software. This is just a fancy interface over a Windows 7 desktop. This means that any program you run on your PC you can run on this, such as Word, Excel, Paint or even games like Command and Conquer. This could easily act as a PC replacement as the addition of a USB keyboard and mouse would give you all the necessary functionality.

  • Comment number 25.

    @Gavin Johns CEO Epitiro you can't control Win 7 with an ipod/ipad at this time of writing. But there maybe a piece of software that lets you

 

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