Get ready for a bigger dose of tablet PCs

Summary:Poor battery life, slow processors and high costs slowed the uptake of tablet PCs but a new and more intuitive OS coupled with improved hardware could change all that

Get ready for a bigger dose of tablet PCs
Matt Loney
Poor battery life, slow processors and high costs slowed the uptake of tablet PCs but a new and more intuitive OS coupled with improved hardware could change all that

When Microsoft chairman Bill Gates introduced the first tablet PC prototypes at the 2001 Comdex trade show in Las Vegas he predicted the devices would become the most popular form of PCs within five years.

"Next year I hope a lot of people in the audience will be taking their notes on a Tablet PC," Gates said at the time.

But even three years later, Gate's vision of an audience of furious tablet note-takers has failed to materialise. By mid 2003 tablets constituted barely 1 percent of the notebook market, equating to 100,000 units shipping in the first nine months. Last summer things got so bad that sales actually started to decline, according to research firm Canalysis.

But despite slow sales, tablet PCs do appear to have escaped the fate of that other Microsoft technology which emerged at about the same time; the Smart Display. Smart Displays were little more than mobile dumb terminals with touch-sensitive screens. Tablet PCs are an altogether different proposition, and analysts expect their use to rise despite a shaky start. The issues that have hampered early adoption will get ironed out: the hardware, the operating system, applications, pricing and other less obvious issues.

The faltering sales figures belie the big potential market for these devices according to analysts. Meta Group recently predicted the demise of desktop PCs over the coming few years, in favour of portable computers. Steve Kleynhans, vice president of Meta's technology research services, expects 40 percent of knowledge workers to prefer a notebook or tablet PC by 2007. He describes 60 percent of information workers as "corridor warriors" who roam from meeting to meeting. These types of workers could be more productive if they had "access to basic information (for example, email, IM, or Web browsing) and note-taking capabilities while attending meetings on premises," he says.

2004 will be good for tablets
Kleynhans sees the second half of 2004 as being a pretty good time for tablet PCs. "We will be seeing the third-generation tablet PC devices and with each generation we will see some of the rough edges sanded off. As we move through 2005, a reasonable portion of corporate notebooks will be purchased with tablet PC functionality." By the end of 2005, says Kleynhans, this figure will surpass 25 percent.

"It has been a slow build but I think we have passed some of the thresholds we needed to cross. We now have processors that are fast enough to do character recognition," he says.

PC manufacturers have indeed struggled to keep the faith, but are persevering, and the beginning of 2004 has seen new models from most makers addressing the gripes that greeted the original releases.

HP recently spruced up its Compaq Tablet in the shape of the PC TC1100, adding many of the improvements that users sought in the original TC1000 model. HP has given the PC TC1100 a much-needed component boost, resulting in this significantly faster and longer-lasting tablet.

Faster and long-lasting
Tablet PCs are finding a niche in some sectors of industry where the large touch sensitive screen coupled with (in many cases) a full-sized keyboard is invaluable for jobs such as data capture.

Ordnance Survey's 400-plus surveyors use Fujitsu Siemens tablet PCs running PRISM (Portable Revision and Integrated Survey Module) software from UK-based Tadpole-Cartesia. The pen interface helps them capture over 5,000 new and changed features of the British landscape every day for the OS MasterMap - an Oracle spatial database that now runs into the terabytes.

At insurance claims firm SAFECO, tablet PCs are being evaluated for their potential to help streamline a process that currently requires at least two accident scene diagrams to be sketched on paper to be sent off for scanning. Claims officers currently have to wait up to 48 hours for the drawings to become available in the electronic claim file.

Next page
Get ready for a bigger dose of tablet PCs
Q&A: Microsoft swallows tablet concept whole
Tablet PC Toolkit
1963: Sketchpad - the first program that allowed a light pen to be used to create graphical drawing on a computer is created by Ivan Sutherland of MIT.
1964: RAND Corporation builds the first portable tablet computer - the Grafacon. It is almost completely handmade and cost around $18,000.
1970: Sonic Pen 3-D input device released.
1980: The Osborne 1 "portable" computer released. Not a tablet but one of the first truly portable computers despite weighing 24 pounds.
1987: Apple showcases the prototype of the navigator. Never became a market-ready product but had a book-like design and featured some speech recognition.
1989: The GRiDPad 1900 is invented: the world's first Pen and Display IBM PC Compatible tablet. Based on DOS, the pad featured handwriting recognition and pen-based pointing and selection.
1992: Microsoft releases Windows for Pen Computing -- a pen-enabled, cut-down version of Windows 3.1.
1993. Apple releases the Newton. The first mainstream PDA to feature pen technology.
1994: Microsoft releases WinPad which ran the Windows for Pen OS. Also Palm releases the Graffiti handwriting recognition.
1996: The Palm Pilot is released.
1998: Vadem Clio/Sharp TriPad released featuring a keyboard and a pen. Arguable the first convertible tablet PC.
1999: Aqcess Qbe tablet. Very similar to today's tablet PCs.
2000: Gateway Connected Touch Pad and 3 Comms Audrey released -- Internet access devices which included wireless keyboards and touch screens.
2001: The prototypes of today's tablets began showing up
Toshiba tablet PC gets facelift
Microsoft blamed for making tablets hard to swallow
Acer blames Microsoft for slow tablet sales
Tablet PC shipments fizzle out
Manufacturers want masses to swallow tablet PC
Toshiba Portege M200
HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1100
Acer TravelMate C111TCi
NEC Versa T400
Windows XP Tablet PC Edition
Tablet PCs: the first wave

Topics: Mobility, Hardware

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