Microsoft's Tablet PC: Cool, but who'll buy it?

David Berlind: What can a Tablet do for you that a notebook or desktop can't? I think its main appeal will be to home enthusiasts with wireless networks and students with deep pockets. But it sure is cool.

As the 7 November ship date for the Tablet PC version of Windows XP draws closer and more companies begin to show devices that support it, I wonder: How much will these cost, and who will be willing to pay for one during these difficult times? Having spent precious little time with a prototype, my sense is that the Tablet PC's main appeal will be to home enthusiasts with wireless networks and students with deep pockets. Tablet PC will primarily be packaged in two form factors: dedicated tablets (most of which can be connected to external keyboards, monitors, etc. for use as a normal PC), and notebook/tablet convertibles that open clamshell-style like other notebooks. With their LCD displays mounted on swivels, these convertibles can be used like a normal notebook when the clamshell is open, or like a tablet when the clamshell is closed. In the latter mode, one of Tablet PC's cool features is the ability to change the orientation of the display from horizontal to vertical. This way, when using its built-in journal application, the device looks and feels like a letter-sized white pad. However, both form factors have limitations that may discourage early adoption, perhaps giving Microsoft time to reach the proverbial version 3.0 -- the version at which many products are said to hit their stride. In either form factor, the biggest question is whether a Tablet PC will serve as the user's primary computing device -- as a desktop or notebook replacement? It could appeal to the mobile crowd that already regards notebooks as desktop replacements and wants tablet functionality, such as the ability to scribble notes instead of typing them. I can take notes much more quickly with a keyboard than I ever could with a pen. My notes are more complete, too, which means any column I write based on those notes is much closer to completion than if I was scratching notes into my composition notebook. Once the Tablet PC ships, I'm sure the collapsible keyboards won't be far behind. One thing you could never do with a notebook computer is copy a chart from a whiteboard into a Word document. With the stylus-based input of a tablet, however, you can. You can also just doodle away, the same way you would with a regular notepad. It rates very high on the cool factor. The Tablet PC will even take a stab at recognising what you've drawn and attempt to clean it up for you. With the dedicated slate-based form factor, users might go to a meeting, scribble on their tablets, and then, when they get back to their desks, dock the device to return it to its normal PC mode, with, at the very least, an externally connected keyboard and mouse. With the convertible form factor, users could skip the docking process. Instead, after a meeting ended, they might just go back to the office, swivel the display back into notebook mode, and switch it back to horizontal orientation. My sense is that as a person's primary computing device, the dedicated slate-based form factor isn't going to fly unless there's a mission-critical application demanding it. For starters, I have been routinely reminded by readers that even notebooks aren't ready to replace desktops. Tablets won't be able to skirt the problems endemic to notebooks -- breakdowns, timely repair, theft, and loss. Worse, for road warriors who require a tablet, the dedicated slate-based form factor will make it difficult to use the device as a standard PC when travelling. For them, the convertible form factor will probably have more appeal because of its versatility. But you're sill left with all the problems that notebooks have, plus the added complexity and fragility of a touchscreen-like display with special swiveling hardware. More things can go wrong. 'Dramatically more expensive'
Another issue looms on the horizon for the Tablet PC -- cost. You can imagine that the convertible's whizz-bang technology will translate into costs that go beyond the typical notebook. A brief survey of a few hardware vendors at TechXNY confirmed this. "Dramatically more expensive," said a tier one vendor. While pricing hasn't been announced, all you have to know now is that corporations are already skittish about shelling out money for notebooks. Those same companies will likely be doubly hesitant to spend more for tablets. The return on investment will have to be well quantified, quickly realised, and guaranteed money in the bank. Otherwise, I don't see chief financial officers signing the cheques anytime soon. That, of course, raises the issue of just exactly what a tablet can do for you that a notebook (or desktop) cannot and whether that adds up to a worthwhile ROI. There's no doubt that the Tablet PC is cool. All I had to do was handle a prototype of Acer's convertible unit at TechXNY, and I wanted one. The handwriting recognition is impressive (unlike Jot or Graffiti, no special keystrokes are required). Unlike the Palm or PocketPC, the Tablet PC doesn't need to recognise handwriting for instant conversion. But it does recognise handwriting, thus enabling searching through your notes. I absolutely loved this feature, because I take a lot of handwritten notes and can never find them later without thumbing through several notebooks. Although my colleague Dan Farber had difficulty getting a Tablet PC to recognise his handwriting, the system had no trouble with my script.

The ink in these documents is also easily manipulated. Have you ever taken a bunch of notes as you listened to a speaker, filled up your page, only to have the presenter backpedal and add some new information that pertains to the notes you already took? With the Tablet PC, you just pick an insertion point, stretch the page, and scribble away. The continuity of your notes will be greatly improved.

But can great usability features like these offer a bottom-line increase in productivity the way something like the spreadsheet or word processor did? So far, I don't think so.

Still, I can't help think that some people will buy the Tablet PC. IT staffs with some discretion over their budgets are likely to bring a few in to play with. If the batteries can hold out, this could be the ideal note-taking device for students in classroom situations. The clickety-clack of keyboards is also eliminated. Notetaking speed may be an issue, though.

Tablets may address a specific need in some vertical applications. But, in most of those cases -- the overnight shipping companies, for example -- Windows XP in the slate-based form factor will have to compete with the lower cost of task-specific tablets that require fewer system resources and don't come with additional software that the workers in the field will never need. Software development issues may be eased due to better availability of development tools for a mass market platform like Windows, but it still will be a tough sell.

For the past nine months, ViewSonic has had a product on the market that is very much like a Tablet PC. According to ViewSonic's Tom Offut, the $1,795 Windows 2000-based Viewpad 1000 (which has lower-end digitising technology and comes in a slate-based form factor) has met the company's sales expectations, but has sold primarily into vertical applications for healthcare, insurance, real estate, and automotive service.

Finally, home users and enthusiasts with money to burn will really love these things, especially if they have a wireless network floating around them. Tablet PCs are perfect for doing what those people do more of than anything else -- cruising the Web. No one really needs a mouse or keyboard for that.

David Berlind is Editorial Director of ZDNet.com's Tech Update.

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