The news this week that Dell has decided to enter the tablet PC market will hearten Microsoft marketeers, who have been toiling for years to get sceptical businesses to swallow it. While the tablet has found a home in niche verticals — Ordnance Survey has some 400 surveyors using them to map the land — it has so far failed to catch on as a panacea for general-purpose tasks.
Dell's decision to enter a market has traditionally be viewed as a sign that the technology in question has matured enough for the online PC seller to squeeze the kind of mass-market margins it needs out of tech buyers. When Dell decided to enter the PDA market back in 2002, it managed to claim over 10 percent of handheld sales in a little over three months. No wonder the PC maker was often seen as the tech equivalent of The Man from Del Monte.
Now the company finds itself increasingly on its back-foot with a resurgent HP and Apple to contend with, and it is questionable whether the Dell seal of approval on a technology still means anything. Microsoft will be hoping it does. Having spent time integrating tablet technology into Vista, the software giant will be hoping that this second dose of the tablet will bring two benefits, the first being a reason for businesses to upgrade to Vista, something they have been struggling with if recent reports are anything to go by. Second, and more importantly for anyone directly involved with Microsoft's Tablet PC development to date, it will save the project from crawling off to the place where failed Microsoft hardware, such as the Smart Display and "iPod killer" — the Zune — go to die.
Doubts about Dell's ability as the kingmaker for a new technology aside, analysts seem to be in agreement that the next 12 months could see the tablet concept expand beyond the 1.4 percent of the mobile device market it occupied in 2006. The change will come because vendors including Dell have realised that the tablet is not a replacement for the notebook but rather another function of the notebook.
Rather than the slate approach, which has many limitations, the convertible format with all the characteristics of a regular laptop plus tablet functionality as a bit of sugar coating, is the way to go. All Dell needs to do is keep the price down.