Get ready for a bigger dose of tablet PCs
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.
"The quicker the data gets into our Claims system, the quicker we can process the claim," says Yom Senegor, chief information officer at SAFECO. "The Tablet PC will provide the real-time data entry and mobility required to process our claims more quickly than our competitors — and provide better customer service."
There are other examples, such 7-Eleven which uses tablet PCs to help update inventory data.
Confined to vertical sectors
But the high costs of tablet PCs means that for now, at least, they remain largely confined to vertical industries where the returns can easily be measured. ZDNet UK's NetBuyer service shows the Toshiba Portege 3500 Tablet PC with a P111 processor retailing at around £1,190 plus VAT, but for a Pentium-M processor and the extra speed and battery life that it brings, you need to stretch your budget by £300 for the Portege M200 Tablet PC, and by even more for HP's £1,720 Compaq TC110. This price is getting on for three times the cost of the cheapest Pentium-M Centrino notebooks around.
But if you just want to doodle in meetings, the days when tablet PCs can be requisitioned as easily and cheaply as notebooks remains some way off: they are still expensive, there are still issues with the operating system, and there remains a dearth of applications.
But some emerging applications do show the potential of tablet PCs. Microsoft UK's Mark Quirk, who heads up the company's Technology, Developer and Platform Group, recently demonstrated one such application to developers in London.
MathPad is a work in progress by PhD student Joseph LaViola of Brown University in the US. It allows a user to write equations and then dynamically link the expressions to elements of a drawing on the same page. Quirk's example showed a pendulum swinging: hardly rocket science, and hardly essential for every meeting, but an illustration of how tablet PCs can be used to visualise concepts that would be harder to do on a traditional desktop or notebook. And great for doodles; the demonstration brought a gasp of approval from the audience.
Few companies will shell out £1,500 plus to be able to swing a virtual pendulum, and indeed past efforts to drive tablet PCs into horizontal markets have failed. Aside from limited offerings, lack of mainstream applications and high prices, manufacturers have blamed Microsoft for poor marketing support. Campell Kan, the chief officer of Acer's notebook products division, went on record last autumn to say he had seen little evidence of Microsoft marketing tablet PCs to end users.
Even with more marketing, analysts say companies should be cautious of being sold tablet PCs too early. "I think for the most part tablet isn't ready for the general purpose user," says Meta Group's Kleynhans. "If you are looking at it for typical office workers then it might be worth doing a small pilot but really its not there yet."
And tablet PCs introduce other issues, besides where to find the extra budget, and some are not immediately obvious, as Madelyn Bryant McIntire who heads up Microsoft's Accessible Technology Group discovered. Speaking at an accessibility conference hosted by the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists in London last September, Bryant McIntire said Microsoft had to ban the use of handwritten emails originating from tablet PC users.
"You can use handwriting recognition on Tablet PCs to write notes," said Bryant McIntire, "but you can't read them if you're blind. We had no idea how many people would hand write emails and send them off to a group. We no longer allow that within Microsoft."
Bryant McIntire said that although there is an application programming interface
in Windows XP tablet edition, "it is not being used either by Microsoft or by any independent software vendors." She told the audience that Microsoft would address this issue in future versions of Tablet PC."
That future version is due in the first half of this year, when Microsoft is expected to launch the update code-named Lonestar. Lonestar is an incremental update to Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, and according to the latest rumours is being rolled into the Windows XP Service Pack 2 beta programme.
When Lonestar, which is likely to be a downloadable upgrade, does arrive, the biggest change will be improvements to handwriting recognition says Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "While I often used my tablet for inking, I would rarely try to use the handwriting recognition," he wrote. "I expect that to change very quickly with the use of Lonestar. The user interface is far more intuitive and the ability to make quick corrections is fantastic. Likewise, I love the fact that the text input panel is now automatically placed at the text entry point. This will no doubt be a must have upgrade for tablet PC users and will probably help overall tablet sales as well."