Tablet Time?

Technology companies love guys like Adrian Davis. “”Heat-seekers,”” they call them — tech-savvy business consumers who consistently target the hottest new technologies and pay whatever it takes to get them.

Davis, vice-president of sales and marketing at Whetstone Inc., a Toronto consulting firm

specializing in “”competitive intelligence and the sales process,”” is an evangelical convert to the tablet PC. He recently bought an Acer tablet model to replace a Toshiba laptop that had given up the ghost.

Davis was hooked instantly. After rattling on for several minutes about how much the new tablet PC is doing for him and how it’s changing the way he operates, he lets slip that he’s only had the thing for a week. Heat-seekers apparently imprint on their new gadgets quickly.

“”I find it tremendously valuable,”” Davis says. The difference in price — he says it’s about $800 more than a similarly equipped conventional notebook — is “”definitely well worth it.””

Pen-based computing, the old name for the tablet PC category, received a new lease on life in November 2002 when Microsoft launched Windows XP Tablet Edition, incorporating its impressive Digital Ink technology.

Hardware vendors such as Acer, HP, Toshiba and Fujitsu introduced new Windows-based tablet models at the same time.

But despite the hype surrounding the product launches and the buzz that has continued — and despite some solid, if difficult to quantify, benefits — the tablet PC remains a niche product for the most part. The fact that it also appeals to heat-seekers augurs well, however.

The big innovation with Tablet Edition is Digital Ink. Users can scrawl longhand notes on the touch-sensitive tablet screen with a plastic stylus. It feels almost like writing on paper and the “”ink”” shows up on the screen very clearly, with no delay.

Best of all, Digital Ink notes are searchable, just as if they were typed text. Or they can be converted to computer text using surprisingly effective handwriting recognition technology that works reasonably well even with messy writing.

For Davis, it means he can take hand-written notes during meetings – where he spends most of his time – and not have to transcribe them later.

“”A lot of times it’s hard to type when you’re talking to somebody in a meeting,”” he points out. “”It’s disruptive, you’re looking at the keys not the person. Taking hand-written notes is just a lot more natural.”” He also finds he can compute in places where he couldn’t easily before — like the back seat of a car or on a commuter train.

Davis invested in the tablet editions of two programs he was already using:

TabletPlanner, a personal information manager from Franklin Covey, originator of the Franklin Planner, and MindManager from Larkspur, Calif.-based Mindjet, billed as “”the visual tool for brainstorming and planning.””

Davis uses MindManager to create “”mind maps”” for the presentations and articles he writes to help win business for his start-up consulting firm. He hand writes ideas and point-form notes using MindManager’s structural schema and then uses the resulting blueprint to quickly write the finished product later.

“”It’s where all the thinking gets done,”” he says of his sessions with MindManager. “”And I find the creative juices flow better and faster when I’m writing naturally. Typing, even though I’m a fairly good typist, does interfere with the creative process.””

If he doesn’t have work to do in TabletPlanner or MindManager, Davis will use the tablet to read business articles online. He finds he now seeks out opportunities to be a passenger rather than a driver because it means he can put his travel time to better use working on the tablet.

Microsoft and its hardware partners are banking on heat-seekers like Davis to spread the word about the Tablet PC to other knowledge workers. And no doubt they will.

It’s the job of guys like your humble correspondent, however, to temper their enthusiasm. After travelling for three weeks with a very good tablet PC, the Fujitsu LifeBook T3010, I can confirm what non-heat-seekers and many analysts have already concluded: promising as it

is, this technology is not ready for the computing mainstream.

The Fujitsu T3010 is a convertible. It has a keyboard, but the screen is on a clever hinge that lets you fold it back over the keyboard to make a flat slate. The best of both worlds, you would think. But it’s too big at 4.2 lbs. to lug very far, and it’s also too heavy to hold in one hand like a clipboard — one of the appeals of “”pure”” tablets.

Niggling problems with form factor are among several annoyances about current tablet PCs, says Leslie Fiering, vice-president of mobile computing at research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. Others include the fact that not enough applications can take advantage of Digital Ink, and the price difference between tablet and notebook PCs remains too high (Fiering’s estimates is about $450, substantially less than Davis’s $800).

Gartner believes the tablet PC will eventually find a broad market. The firm is predicting that by 2007 more than a third of all notebooks will have tablet capabilities.

But the market will ramp slowly, with unit sales below the half million mark in 2003 and not really taking off until 2005.

Not that tablet PCs aren’t useful today in some environments, Fiering notes. They make particularly good sense where users need to gather information in a social setting — life insurance salespeople visiting customers’ homes, for example, or case workers visiting clients.

They make sense in fact in any vertical industry that uses data collection and forms-based applications extensively —health care, public safety, manufacturing and quality control, consumer packaged goods and government inspection agencies, for example.

Microsoft and its partners, of course, are pushing the tablet as a horizontal solution as well — a tool knowledge workers are more apt to take with them when they leave their office because it’s more convenient and easy to use. There is already literature showing that workers are more productive when they carry a computer with them.

Microsoft itself has deployed tablets extensively. In its operations and technology group (i.e. Microsoft’s IT department), it claims to have tracked average productivity gains of 20 per cent as a result of equipping employees with tablets.

But before mainstream knowledge workers outside the high-tech sector adopt the tablet PC, it will have to get better, Fiering says.

The price difference must virtually disappear. Form factors must be refined. Convertibles like the Fujitsu and models with detachable or attachable keyboards like Motion Computing’s are heading in the right direction, she says.

Plus, software developers will have to make it easier for users to access the powerful Digital Ink capabilities. It’s not enough that they’re available in Windows Journal, the note-taking program bundled with Tablet Edition, and a few other applications.

“”If there’s very little price premium and tablet PCs are easy to use, people will use them,”” Fiering says. “”We’re bullish in the long term. It’s just not going to happen right away.””

Fiering and Gartner have it just about right. Not all knowledge workers will benefit hugely from tablet PCs, and for most, pen-based computing will be a sometimes thing.

Davis may find that typing interferes with creativity, but younger, more keyboard-literate users likely don’t. My own experience is that handwriting, because I’m so rusty after years of typing everything, interferes with creativity more than keyboarding.

Even where there are clear benefits — note-taking in face-to-face meetings, low-input computing away from a desk — the benefits are difficult to quantify. Even Davis admits that.

So as with every other new technology, it’s not just a question of building it so they will come. Hardware and software vendors have to build it better if they want broad acceptance. And charge a modest premium at best.

Show me a robust, weather-proof tablet that weighs less than 3 lbs. and can be attached to a keyboard back at the office, and I might buy it. Especially if it’s only few bucks more than a comparable laptop.

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