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HP After the TouchPad: We're Betting Big on Touch in Windows 8

Last week, I was invited down to HP's headquarters in Houston to see how the company designed and tested its business notebooks. While I was there, I had a chance to talk to Eric Chen, who heads up HP's Elitebook design team. He walked us through how they tested out various design concepts on the ProBook 5330m and the Elitebook line, and talked about the future of business notebooks. The big takeaway? Although webOS hardware is kaput, HP is investing heavily in touch input and new form factors to make the most of Windows 8.

LAPTOPMAG: How much experimenting did it take to create the Elitebook?

Eric Chen: We’ve gone through 10, 20, 30 different iterations of the Elitebook before we came to the final design. Even different versions of the keys, key treatments. When we think something’s going to work, we have to put it to the test. 

This was a very very early exploration. If you notice on the finished products, you don't have these gloss bits. Since we sell into global environments, in Europe, there’s something called the GS mark, which requires us to not have a gloss reflectivity over a certain amount. So this was something we studied early on but passed over because of the gloss level.

HP's materials roadmap has you looking at materials such as ceramic and carbon fiber. How will they be used in laptops?

The materials are sought after as a necessity as the expectation for notebooks is to be lighter, thinner, stronger. Our notebooks pass through some of the most stringent tests I’ve seen. I used to work at Motorola where there are a lot of government contracts, and you have to be able to run the product over with a car. These things go through the same things: the heat chamber, humidity chambers. So the materials we choose are out of necessity. It has to look great, and at the same time--and they don’t really want to know about this--if I drop it, it can survive. There’s an expectation for this thing to last longer. On the consumer side, it’s more of “hey, look at me.” For us, it’s a feature that we don’t show on the outside, but it’s something that we’ll tell our customers as a value add.

What’s the next major technology you're looking at?
Touch. We’re working with Microsoft extensively. We think there’s going to be an explosion of products and innovative features through touch. I think we’re still at touch 1.0 in terms of what we’re seeing. The capabilites of the sensors are now just incredible, and SDKs are being put out for a lot of third-party software manufacturers to embed touch everywhere.  And think about the relationship between devices as well. We already see this, touch devices becoming auxillary controls for other devices. They will all have to work together in the future. I think that’s going to be the most interesting.

Do you think there will be a reimagining of touch on the Elitebook?
Absolutely. In fact, that’s what we’re working on right now. The future of the workplace. The marrying of productivity and play, the ecosystem of touch devices and non-touch devices, laptops and slate devices. How do they all work together? What is their relationship? I think touch is going to be the biggest advance in terms of laptop design--of course we’ll look at thinner and lighter--but I think it’s the interaction model that we have on these devices and operating systems that are out that is really going to be the innovation.

If IT managers hesitate to adopt Windows 8 they way they did with Vista, will that delay what you do in terms of hardware?
So far the response has been very very good. The software looks very promising, so I don’t think it’s going to be a case where there’s a slow adoption like previous generations. But it will be very challenging for a lot of IT in workplaces. Some people will not want a touch interface... there’s only one app they want to use, and they don’t want to go through a touch interface to get there. So that’s something we’re working with Microsoft, how do you customize your operating system?

For people that use touch, it represents a tremendous opportunity, for example, if you think about how it can transform the hospitality or education. They want that, they can’t wait to have this device, and for it to hit a lower price point. It needs to be somewhat flexible in terms of hardware as well as the software. So we’re working on all fronts to make sure conditions are right. You may get some heavy adopters somewhere, but no adoption elsewhere. But it’s here to stay.