'Out today!'Despite a showy launch set for later today, a new generation of tablet PCs is not likely to make much of a mark in the mainstream notebook market, according to a pair of studies. A report issued on Wednesday by Gartner Dataquest predicts the machines, based on a new version of Microsoft's Windows XP operating system, will account for just 1 per cent of worldwide notebook shipments in 2003, for a total of about 425,000 tablet PCs. Although they may find wider adoption in the niche markets that are currently using pen-based tablets, "only the bravest" will be using tablet PCs widely by the end of 2003, Gartner Dataquest VP Leslie Fiering said in a release. Market researcher IDC also predicts tablet PCs will get off to a relatively slow start, selling about 575,000 units in the United States in 2003 and about 1 million units in 2004. The total US notebook market will be about 13 million units in 2003, IDC predicts, about 8 per cent of which will be ultraportables. Acer, Fujitsu, HP and Toshiba are among the companies that will offer the systems. The tablet PCs run on Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, designed by Microsoft to handle pen input. The new tablets will come in two basic models: laptops with screens that can be folded around to make a tablet, and pure tablets, which look more like an Etch-a-Sketch toy. Most of the devices weigh between 3 and 4 pounds and cost $2,000 or more. "A lack of application support, clumsy hardware designs and a price premium will be barriers for most users," Gartner VP Ken Dulaney said. Most companies that buy them will make purchases of one to 10 systems to test them out. Gartner is predicting customers will need a six- to nine-month evaluation period before making any volume purchases. At a Gartner symposium in France on Tuesday, Jean Phillipe Curtois, president Microsoft EMEA, conceded that addressing those challenges might take "some time". Later on Tuesday, Microsoft's director of marketing for the EMEA mobile devices group, Robbie Wright, argued that using a tablet PC in a business meeting is more socially acceptable than using a notebook. In a customer meeting, he said: "It is not really appropriate to pop out your laptop and start typing away - however, when you are writing notes, it looks like you are at least paying attention... So we think the tablet PC is a replacement or upgrade for a laptop that makes a lot of sense in terms of increasing productivity." Still, one of the foremost considerations for potential buyers will be price, analysts said.
"If pricing is kept low, compared to other ultraportables, then we'll see some unit shipments... mainly into the commercial market," said Alan Promisel, an analyst at IDC. Tablet PCs will likely go to people like high-level executives, who spend their days running between meetings, he said. Margaret Kane writes for CNET News.com. News.com's John G Spooner and ZDNet UK's Eugene Lacey also contributed to this report.