Tablet PC: Coming to an Office Near You?

With the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition launch Thursday, Microsoft is taking aim at what some call an untapped market: so-called 'corridor warriors.' The software giant and its hardware partners are excited by the new technology's possibilities, but analysts are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Tablet PC: Will Business Buy It?

Many of the gadgets coming out of the technology sector in the past year have been aimed at mobile workers giving them the ability to stay in-touch and on-the-job while on the road.

But, fresh off of its victory in its landmark antitrust case, Microsoft and its hardware partners are aiming their newest products, based on the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system that will launch Thursday, at an entirely different class of worker: the "Corridor Warrior."

"I think the biggest short-term application is going to be for corridor warriors," said Ron Gerber, CEO of wireless and mobile technology consultancy Angelbeat. "That's a big deal for the tablet."

Corridor Warriors
The corridor warriors are the workers that spend most of their time in the office, but significant amounts of that time is spent taking notes during meetings or otherwise away from the desk. Gerber said that with most incarnations of the tablet capable of serving as a desktop, laptop or slate as the user needs it, and the combination of wireless access and multiple interfaces -- keyboard, digital ink, on-screen keyboard, even voice -- the tablet is well-suited to the needs of such workers.

"This goes symbiotically with Wi-Fi ," Gerber said. "These are people walking around all the time. I think they're going to start replacing a lot more of the laptops. That's where I see the biggest cannibalization."

Gerber predicted that within about two years, about 40 percent of laptop users are going to consider upgrading to tablets.

Like most of Microsoft's manufacturing partners, Dan Coffman, senior product manager, Mobile and Wireless, ViewSonic Corp., agreed that corridor warriors are the biggest market.

"The so-called 'corridor warrior' is the customer for whom our Tablet PC makes the most sense -- a person that spends several hours a day taking notes in meetings yet also needs a standard work station," Coffman said. "When this person needs to go to a meeting, they grab the tablet out of the dock and go -- no buttons to push, no switches to click. The user can just grab and go. Because the ViewSonic Tablet PC has in-built wireless connectivity, workers can take handwritten notes, connect to e-mail and the Internet, and have access to their information whenever and wherever they need it."

Oscar Koenders, vice president of Worldwide Product Planning and U.S. Product Marketing for Toshiba also concurred.

"The initial audience for the Portégé 3500/05 Tablet PC will be an extension of the people who are already using our traditional Portégé notebooks," Koenders said. "They already understand the benefit of ultra-mobile computing. These are executives who work in offices but spend 80 percent of their time away from their desks. We did a study of how the Tablet PC would increase productivity for these "corridor warriors." We took a person with an employee cost of $100,000 a year, and quantified the increase of productivity that he or she would gain from being able to be more efficient in meetings through the use of the Tablet PC. If that person saves only 15 minutes a day by directly capturing and saving meeting notes on a Tablet PC without having to re-input information from handwritten notes, or by dynamically sharing and distributing information instantly, with co-workers and clients, already the return on investment is $260 a week, or $3,120 a year. Obviously, the ROI goes up quickly for highly-paid executives."

The Rough Treatment
Some of Microsoft's partners are also positioning the Tablet PC as ideal for workers that need rugged mobile computers, such as people that work in public safety, warehousing, field service, utility, field sales, healthcare, transportation, manufacturing, and military/homeland security. One of these partners is Xplore Technologies, which has been developing and manufacturing rugged tablet-style computers since 1996. Xplore's computers are designed to handle all kinds of weather and rough treatment. Dwayne Lum, director of Marketing, New Product Initiatives, at Xplore, said its new iX104 -- which uses Windows XP Tablet PC Edition -- is designed to withstand a three-foot drop to concrete.

"One of the largest markets for our ruggedized Tablet PCs is public safety agencies, including law enforcement, fire fighting and emergency medical response," Lum said. "We have over 200 public safety agencies using our products. Typical uses include accident reporting, running licenses, plates, registration and criminal history checks. With the wireless technology included in the Xplore Tablet PC, a police officer has a virtual office right in the squad car. Other Tablet PC applications allow Global Positioning System plotting of fastest-route-to-incident and digital documentation of domestic abuse cases."

Digital Inking
So what does the tablet offer that makes it a compelling alternative to laptops? Gerber said the digital inking technology holds the key.

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition's inking technology uses a digitizer laid over the LCD screen to create an electromagnetic field which can capture motion as a series of data points reflected on the screen. Because the Tablet PC digitizer is capable of sampling 130 "pen events" per second, it is able to create the effect of "real-time inking," allowing the digital ink to appear at the same speed that the pen writes, no matter how fast it moves. The operating system can record the digital ink as ink, or translate it into text. Either way, it is fully searchable and exportable, even allowing the user to send hand-written emails, whether or not the recipient has a Tablet PC.

"The handwriting recognition, I think, is incredibly cool," Gerber said. "There's a totally different user experience when you receive an email that's handwritten."

ViewSonic's Coffman agreed.

"It creates a seamless transition from note-taking to collaboration with coworkers," Coffman said. "Handwritten notes can be inserted into documents for review or placed directly into emails for instant collaboration. Because of its wireless capabilities and the ability to input data using simple "pen to paper," users can be efficient anywhere, at anytime. Also it's the ultimate personal client for connecting to the Internet. Using a pen to navigate the Internet is very efficient and satisfying."

Toshiba's Koenders added, "Customers can use the Tablet PC more effectively in situations where it was previously inconvenient or considered inappropriate to use computers. If you took a standard notebook computer into a customer meeting and opened it up, you created a screen, a huge barrier between yourself and customer. You also had to deal with the noise and nuisance of using a keyboard. The Tablet PC is flat like a pad of paper, and taking notes on it seems very natural and unobtrusive."

No Comparison to Palm?
While technologies already exist that allow most of these things, including Palm's enterprise products and Microsoft's own PDA operating systems, Gerber said that the advantage of the Tablet PC is that its operating system is a superset of Windows XP Professional Edition, making it 100 percent compatible with the Windows XP platform and allowing it to run all Windows XP applications out of the box. That also, Gerber noted, explains why Tablet PC -- in his estimation -- will succeed where previous abortive attempts to market slate-type computers (like Apple's Newton) have failed.

Indeed, Gerber noted that Tablet PCs and Palms are two very different products aimed at different needs. "Comparing the new Palm to the tablet is like comparing a Yugo to a Rolls," he said. "It's that big a difference."

He said Microsoft is taking the battle to Palm with its Pocket PC offerings, but tablet fills a different niche. "With the XP tablet they're trying to solidify their role in the corridor wars," he said. "It's more of an untapped market."

Slow Adoption
But while Gerber sees "corridor warriors" rapidly adopting the Tablet PC, research firm Gartner Dataquest has forecast a much slower adoption curve. Gartner predicts that after a slow start, Tablet PC adoption will ramp up to the point where 35 percent of all notebooks sold will have screen digitizers with a convertible or separable keyboard by 2007. The firm said it projects Tablet PC shipments to reach 425,000 units in 2003, representing 1.2 percent of worldwide notebook shipments.

"Initial interest could cause an early spike in purchasing that will eventually level out," said Leslie Fiering, vice president for Gartner Dataquest. "Outside of the vertical industries, only the bravest will implement Tablet PCs widely toward the end of 2003."

Gartner said the majority of early purchases of tablets are likely to be made by businesses, especially those in vertical markets, though they will likely be buying in lots of one to 10 for evaluation purposes. Some business executives and consumers eager for the latest gadgets will probably round out early sales, Gartner said.

"Tablet PCs will have a natural fit in many vertical applications that currently use pen-based tablets," said Ken Dulaney, vice president and research area director for Gartner. "However, a lack of application support, clumsy hardware designs and a price premium will be barriers for most users."

Fiering added, "While it is true that hardware has to change to make the Tablet PC ergonomically feasible to access the newest media type and ink, it is the strength of users' desire to use the new software that will largely determine the extent and speed of the change of the hardware."

Partners
Still, Gartner's projections have not kept hardware partners from jumping on the Tablet PC bandwagon. More than 20 PC hardware vendors are scheduled to release Tablet PCs within the next year, and more than a dozen have products slated to hit shelves in conjunction with Thursday's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition launch. Microsoft's hardware manufacturing partners include Acer, Dixons Group, Electrovaya, FIC, Fujitsu PC Corp., Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Hewlett-Packard Co., Legen, Motion Computing, NEC, NEC CI, PaceBlade Technology, Research Machines, Sotec, Tatung, Time Group, Toshiba, ViewSonic, Viglen, WalkAbout and Xplore Technologies.

Most of the offerings are ultra-portables in the 3- to 4- pound range and come in a variety of form factors. Some are convertibles, which means it is a notebook computer and the user can rotate the screen 180 degrees and lay it down on the keyboard to form a slate. Others have attachable keyboards, and most have the ability to plug into a docking station, allowing them to serve as desktops.

Software partners are not being left out either. For instance, ScanSoft is unveiling speech recognition technology for the tablet, Alias|Wavefront will debut software that turns tablets into digital sketchbooks, Proscape Technologies has announced a tablet-enabled version of its software platform for sales organizations, Groove Networks will unveil a digital-ink enabled chat tool for Groove workspace, and Iteration Software will introduce real-time reporting enterprise software. Other announcements are expected at the launch.






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