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Surprise! HP's Slate PC is a success

Some of us thought HP's Windows tablet from last year was dead on arrival. Instead, it's outlived the much-hyped TouchPad.

In 2010 and 2011, two tablet computers from HP generated plenty of hoopla.

The first one was the Windows-based "Slate PC," which Steve Ballmer proudly brandished at his CES keynote in January of last year. That one was supposed to be a big-time consumer product, and HP ran its publicity machine in overdrive for awhile--but building a decent Windows tablet turned out to be a daunting challenge.

All of a sudden, HP stopped talking about the Slate PC. I brashly declared it to be dead.

Much to my surprise, the company did release its Windows tablet--very quietly--as a business-focused product called the Slate 500 in October 2010. Whereupon the world pretty much forgot about it.

The second HP tablet, the WebOS-powered TouchPad, had a far higher profile. When HP unveiled it at an Apple-style press event, I thought that it was the most promising alternative to the iPad, and had a shot at being a big hit. But the TouchPad crashed and burned in spectacular fashion, just weeks after its July 2011 launch. The HP tablet dream appeared to be dead.

HP Slate 2
HP's Slate 2 with a credit-card reader. HP

Except for one thing: The Slate 500 succeeded, at least if you define success as "selling well enough to justify a sequel."

Yesterday, HP announced the Slate 2. Starting at $699, it's a refreshed version of the 8.9" Slate 500 that the company says is faster, with better battery life. It's added the Swype alternative keyboard, and HP offers a Bluetooth keyboard case that lets the Slate 2 operate like a tiny notebook. There are a few other changes aimed at users in industries such as health care and retail. That's about it.

HP isn't saying that the Slate 2 is going to revolutionize anything. It's not arguing that it's better than the iPad, except from the perspective of companies that have invested a lot of money in custom Windows software that they don't want to rewrite for iOS. An HP executive who showed me the new tablet yesterday cheerfully told me that it turned out that nearly all the Slate 500's fans used it for vertical applications, not as a general-purpose computing device, and that its successor is tailored to their needs.

Most of us will never see a Slate 2 in the wild--and I'm pretty positive that it, unlike the TouchPad, is not going to be the subject of big-budget TV commercials or glossy magazine ads.

In short, the Slate 2 is completely unglamorous. In almost every way that matters, it's an anti-iPad.

But unlike the ill-fated TouchPad, HP's Slate lives. Unlike RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, it seems to address real-world needs in a competent manner. In its own humble fashion, it's one of the few success stories among post-iPad tablets. There's a lesson there--both for hardware makers who are still figuring out how to respond to the iPad, and for technology pundits who get excited about shiny objects.

Correction at 12:23 p.m. PT: The story previously misstated the price of the Slate 2. The updated story contains the correct figure.