special report 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, Gates' vision of an audience of furious tablet note-takers has failed to materialise. By mid-2003 tablets constituted barely one 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.
"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.
Page II: 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.
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. 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 thousands 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."
ZDNet UK's Matt Loney reported from London. For more coverage on ZDNet UK Insight, click here.