Hardware makers blur boundaries in devices of the future

Hardware companies like IBM and Compaq are going back to the drawing board to create converged laptops and portable devices that extend their reach in niche markets.

Many firms have tried — and failed — to create tools that appeal to the so-called convergence or “”tweener”” audience that

want something between a desktop and a mobile device. Last year IBM, for example, launched with great fanfare the ThinkPad TransNote (pictured above), a portable PC with an added pad to capture handwritten notes. Its adjustable screen also allowed it to sit much like a desktop flat panel monitor. After failing to meet sales expectations, however, IBM discontinued it. Now vendors are either returning to tweener concepts like tablet PCs or trying to offer better integration with other devices.

In February, the company unveiled a new technology under development, called MetaPad. This will be a pocket PC that will include a hard drive, full video capabilities, USB ports and a full operating system. “”With the MetaPad, you’ll have an actual computer in the palm of your hand,”” said Harry Wttewaal, the ThinkPad sales manager for IBM Canada.

IBM says the MetaPad will have several capabilities that take it beyond what ThinkPads offer today. For instance, users who want to work on an Excel file can avoid the limited screen size by sliding the device into its accompanying notebook.

“”This is truly a perfect example of a converged product,”” added Wttewaal.

“”There will be no synchronization needed between your computer and your handheld because your handheld is your computer.””

Wttewall said that while many verticals could use the MetaPad, the best feedback has come from companies with a mobile sales force.

Despite its versatility, the MetaPad could also be problematic in some environments, according to IDC Canada hardware research analyst John Stanisic. “”When you take a handheld on the road there is an increased chance of losing it, having it stolen, or damaging it,”” he said. “”And since this is a full computer, professionals will use it to carry around sensitive information, so there are those risks attached.””

IBM’s competitor, Compaq, is also developing its own product to serve a niche market. By the end of the year, the company hopes to release the Tablet PC, which it is developing jointly with Microsoft.

The lightweight device, which will have the same measurements as an 8 1/2″” by 11″” piece of paper, has a large screen where users can write freehand. “”We’ve identified this new data capture technology for professionals out in the field,”” said Michael Dodgson, the national product manager for notebooks at Compaq Canada. “”The Tablet PC is beyond the standard of traditional notebooks, since it’s great for those that do work one-handed.””

According to Dodgson, these customers include anyone from an executive in a boardroom to a university student, a physician or a journalist. “”Basically, this product is great for anyone using pen and paper on a daily basis.””

Like IBM’s new machines, the Tablet PC will also have USB ports for a keyboard, mouse, and any type of external devices. Dodgson said the main benefit of such a machine is its functionality: “”It’s not as powerful as a normal notebook, but there is an immense trade off, it’s thin and light, and the battery life will be far better than anything out there on the market today.””

However, these products might have a rough start due to current market conditions. Last year’s recession led to decreased spending, and thanks to budget cuts, small business stopped buying PCs, according to Stanisic.

“”Basically, the people that should have been buying these products and driving the market simply weren’t purchasing,”” he said, but added the niche approach could work.

“”There is an increasing need for products to be customized for industry-specific markets. And with notebooks and personal devices, there are a lot of exciting things that manufacturers can and will be able to do.””

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