Tablet PCs: Is the writing on the wall?

Industry analysts speculate on whether the renewed publicity around the handwriting-recognition PCs marks a renaissance for the devices or their death throes

Tablet PCs have enjoyed a brief resurgence of publicity since IBM and China’s Lenovo Group unveiled the first ThinkPad convertible notebook at the start of June.

But after having remained a decidedly niche product since Microsoft chairman Bill Gates launched the first prototypes at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas in 2001 to great fanfare, the big question is will the IBM and Lenovo launch be enough to ignite more mainstream business interest?

Some analysts claim it will. Michael Gartenberg, vice-president and research director at Jupiter Research, says the X41 Tablet series is a no-compromise PC but with added tablet functionality as a bonus.

"This will kick-start the market and these products have the potential to move the market forward. As people become more aware that they can gain tablet functionality without any trade-offs such as battery life, we’ll start to see sales picking up during the second half of this year,” he says.

The IBM/Lenovo machines, the first to be released by the Chinese firm since it acquired IBM's PC business earlier this year, boast a six-hour battery life as opposed to the usual couple of hours, weigh under 2kg, and come with a standard ThinkPad image, which makes them easier to deploy. (See ZDNet Reviews for a sneak preview)

Gartenberg claims that, despite rumours to the contrary, the tablet PC is alive and well and being used. He claims the he potential market is equivalent to that of notebooks, but a key problem is that many end-users are simply unaware of that tablets even exist as retail outlets, among others, have failed to push them.

But Gartenberg's optimistic view of the future of tablets isn't shared by all analysts Andy Brown, IDC's programme manager for European mobile computers and devices, says that the handwriting recognition-based machines will comprise just one percent of the global notebook market in 2005, rising to a mere 2.4 percent by 2009.

Of a total market that saw 17.9 million notebooks sold in 2004, Brown adds, only 130,000 units comprised tablet PCs. Although sales are expected to increase to 230,000 this year, the amount is still peanuts when compared with predicted notebook sales of 22.8 million units.

Annette Jump, a principal analyst at Gartner, likewise believes that high levels of take-up are unlikely any time soon. For 2004, she valued the market in Europe, the Middle East and Africa at just $125,000 (£69,700), although, at 30 to 35 percent, she expects the sector to grow faster than the notebook market rate of 20 to 25 percent during 2005 and 2006.

As to who is using such devices, eight out of 10 vendor case studies relate to healthcare, with clinicians using the devices mainly for patient data collection. Other key verticals include education, insurance, estate agents and other 'clip-board' jobs. The devices will also play a role among staff who maintain equipment on oil-rigs, for example, or in manufacturing plants, where it is easier to cost justify their relatively high prices, says Richard Edwards, a research analyst at Butler Group.

"If the value of the information that is in-putted is high enough and there is expediency involved, in that the information can be re-used elsewhere without having to re-key it, tablets can be a compelling proposition. It depends on how the information is used as to whether you’d be better off with a tablet or a laptop though," says Edwards.

Another potential market are high-level managers who tend to use tablets for note-taking purposes, says Gartner's Jump explains: "The majority of adoption took place in the first year of release, with larger accounts testing between one and ten machines. The majority were used in verticals, but some were deployed as executive jewellery."

While unit purchases are now starting to increase to between 50 and 100 in some interested verticals, most "executive jewellery" purchases have already been made and so are unlikely to become a burgeoning opportunity in the near term at least.

In fact, says IDC's Brown, a survey of 1,000 IT procurers undertaken over the last three years indicates that the devices are unlikely to hit the mainstream in the foreseeable future, with between 60 and 70 percent of those questioned having no interest in purchasing them whatsoever.

So what's going on and why hasn't Gates' much-talked-about vision of tablets being the most popular form of PC within five years, become a reality?

According to Bulter's Edwards, historically, the adoption of any new form factor, whether that be the PC a few decades ago or mobile phones in more recent times, leads to "slow take-up on a long runway, but once they’re airborne, things accelerate exponentially".

Nonetheless, he says: "The challenge with tablets is one of the level of functionality offered compared with a PDA or laptop versus price. If you're an IT manager looking to set a recommendation, you'd probably struggle to come up with a solid case for paying a 25 to 30 percent premium over a notebook in most industries."

An Acer laptop, for example, costs just over £500 including VAT, while a similar specification tablet is closer to £870.

But the challenge here, says Gartner's Jump, is one of economies of scale, with certain hardware components for tablets costing a premium due to lack of volume sales. This creates a Catch 22 situation, with sales unlikely to increase until prices fall and prices unlikely to drop until volumes rise.

Despite this situation, the devices need to drop to between $150 and $200 for more widespread adoption to take place in key vertical markets, to between $50 and $100 for more horizontal uptake in large corporate accounts, and to below $50 for consumers to take any interest.

An even bigger issue though, is the lack of available applications. Although Microsoft came out with a downloadable Experience Pack earlier this year, which includes Ink Desktop for note-taking and Ink Art for drawing pictures, in order to showcase the device's functionality, ISVs have singularly failed to bite beyond core niche markets.

The software giant failed to support ISVs or the hardware manufacturers adequately as its focus moved from tablets as the "latest thing" to more bread-and-butter revenue-generating issues such as delivering as Windows XP Service Pack 2 last year and the client version of Longhorn next year, says Gartner's Jump.

"Tablets bring in very good margins, but they're not a priority," she explains.

Microsoft's failure to support developers means that even key sectors are blessed with no more than a "handful" of custom-built applications. Also internal development teams in end-user organisations are focusing on "Webifying" systems and lack the capacity to re-engineer applications to take advantage of the ink features of tablets, says Butler's Edwards.

Critics also argue that the whole idea behind tablets is more in line with the North American "corridor warrior" vision of how people work and fails to take into account regional differences.

All of this means that there is simply not a compelling business case for most organisations to opt for the devices. "In an era, where finance and deals are being closely scrutinised and the chief financial officer has all power over what is spent and where, if you don’t really need tablets, you’re not going to get them and many organisations don’t need them specifically. There has to be a hard demonstrable return on investment and benefits or they won’t be rolled out," explains IDC's Brown.

This situation is also not helped by the additional expense required to maintain the average system and train potential users.

"The notion that because people like writing that they'd automatically like PCs that enable them to do so is a misnomer. It takes three to four months for people to get used to tablets and to realise their benefits and many organisations have limited budgets for training on new products and supporting users," Brown says.

IT departments also end up having yet another operating system to maintain, manage and patch, while many machines have a different image to standard notebooks, which means that it requires work to adjust corporate logos and the like.

Machine life for convertible tablets, a more popular form-factor than slate versions, is also shorter than other portable equivalents as the hinges tend to be the first things to fail, which adds to total cost of ownership.

But at the end of the day the biggest problem is simply lack of awareness. Although there are up to 30 tablet manufacturers, many have little brand recognition, while for the larger players such as HP, tablets are not included in distribution programmes because many vendors don't know what to do with them and it's not clear where they sit, according to Brown.

All this is not to say that tablet PCs are beyond hope, however. "We don’t see them creating a huge market. They definitely have a place, but it is niche," says Brown,

Factors that could potentially encourage more mainstream adoption include significant price drops, an increase in application availability for more broad-based business use and improved hinge design to lengthen product life cycles.

Another significant driver could be the entry of number one PC provider, Dell, into the marketplace. "Dell is key because it's a commoditiser. It takes commoditised products and focuses on volume sales, so if it decides to get into the market, we see an opportunity there," adds Brown.

If Apple were to make a move into the market too, it could bring about a big shake-up. "It's moving to Intel, which would provide it with an opportunity to go for the Pentium M mobile processor. If it came out with an iBook tablet PC-style machine, it would go down well with the hip and trendy set and so it might be something to look out for in 12 to 18 months time,” says Bulter's Edwards.

But other potential drivers could include an increased uptake in corporate wireless networks and voice-over-IP services. "Some of the roles that tablets may have been suited to such as engineering, utilities and field service don't tend to use them because the screen makes it difficult to read outdoors. Until that is conquered, in-door roles will continue to make the best use of tablets," adds Edwards.

As a result, more widespread deployment of enterprise Wi-Fi could make tablets more attractive as they are small and are designed to be held in the lap while using a stylus. This means they’re more convenient to carry round than a laptop. At the moment, however, users have to synchronise their machines using a cradle.

"If staff can roam around a site and take calls on their tablet, using it as a softphone with something like Skype, it suddenly starts to add value," says Edwards.

As a result, IDC's Brown believes that it is definitely not all over for tablets. "Never say never because there are no guarantees. I wouldn’t damn them over the long-term if prices come down significantly and they’re proven as robust, but it will take quite a heavy push on the part of the vendors to broaden their appeal."