Swallowing the tablet

Swallowing the tablet

Speeding up a patient diagnosis or making life easier for field workers in the bush — that’s part of the promise of a Tablet PC.

“Medical staff can display an x-ray, mark it up, and then send it to other healthcare workers,” senior product marketing manager for Windows desktop, Danny Beck, said.

“Field workers can boost productivity and input data on the spot.”

That’s the benefits of mixing and matching handwriting and computing together in a mobile form factor, where annotations can be shared via email or word documents.

“You can take a digital image of an x-ray, take a snapshot, load it onto the Tablet PC via Windows Journal [where you can annotate the image], and then email the image to a colleague,” Beck said.

And while pen-based computing has been around for about 10 years, the technology was never been considered mainstream-friendly. But that’s changing, according to some industry proponents.

Many vendors are pitching the benefits to a cross-section of businesses as well as vertical markets — including healthcare, education, construction, sales force, manufacturing, defence, government and finance — where a reduction in manual, intensive record keeping will save both time and money.

Typically, vendors pitched convertible tablets that offered the benefits of both a notebook and a tablet — this category was popular in corporate, government and education arenas — product manager of Fujitsu Australia, John Lee, said, along with slate models, which offered indoor and outdoor screen viewing options.

“Only the imagination can limit its uses,” Beck said. “There’s unlimited opportunity for Tablet PCs — and it’s up to the customer’s imagination where we take it.”

IDC sees considerable long-term growth potential for the Tablet PC, suggesting it’s performing well as a revolutionary form factor in the mobile computing space.

Gartner, on the other hand, is a little more cautious, indicating its use is mostly relegated to vertical markets including logistics, healthcare, financial and education.

“Don’t get too excited about it,” Gartner PC analyst, Andy Woo, said.

“It’s a niche play at the moment,” he said.

Despite the early market hype, the market for Tablet PCs was disappointing, Woo said. About 900-1000 units, on average, were sold per quarter in Australia, he said. “Would you call this market share?” he asked.

Some refuse to take a tablet

The top three players in Australia are Acer, HP and Toshiba.

Last year, the tablet portion captured a whisker above one per cent of the overall Australian notebook market.

“This gives an indication of the acceptance of the tablet,” Woo said. “My question is: Will Tablet PCs become a mainstream device in the next two to three years? I think that’s a big call.”

Why such resistance in the mass market? Woo said there were some major inhibitors slowing down the path to widespread adoption. The lack of mainstream applications was a big one, he said.

“The technology is application-driven, not hardware driven, so there needs to be a wider range available,” Woo said.

High prices are another factor.

Given that prices had shot down for notebooks, the current market attraction for standard notebook PCs was high, he said.

“As mainstream notebooks continue to decline, the price delta between Tablet PCs and notebooks widens,” Woo said.

“How can you justify that value? It’s hard for enterprises to justify the cost from a mainstream perspective — even with the addition of Centrino, there’s still a price inhibitor.”

Indeed, the technology was in its infancy, but only promised to get better, Microsoft’s Beck said.

“We see it not as a revolution, but as an evolution,” he said.

With the growing reliance on mobility, businesses would start to consider tablets instead of desktops when doing an IT refresh, he said.

“Lighter, longer battery life — this offers the mobile sales force greater productivity. For field workers [or road warriors], it’s easier to input data through a pen.”

Mobility was the fastest growing category in business and in the home, he said, and with the advent of 802.11 and more broadband adoption, “even home users will potentially take to the tablet.”

But Gartner’s Woo said there were concerns with handwriting recognition and mechanical reliability of the gear.

Beck acknowledged the issues with handwriting recognition, but said improvements were on the way.

“It was never meant to be 100 per cent, but as we can read your handwriting, so too can the computer,” he said.

“For doctors out there, take note: those considering using the Tablet PC, start being a little bit more legible,” Woo said.

The technology would make strides when the next version, codenamed LoneStar, made its appearance in July, Beck said.

Part of the Windows XP Service Pack launch, the second generation will include Centrino II chipsets for faster processing power.

Today’s version one, known as Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, lets users write directly on the screen and save notes via the input panel (an on-screen keyboard system that lets consumers use the tablet pen to enter text and control the computer), as well as run Windows XP-compatible applications. With version two, Beck said future enhancements would include a better input panel (a virtual keyboard), better integration with Office, as well as a new software development kit that will see improvements in digital inking, for example. Thanks to the OS enhancements, Fujitsu’s Lee said this year was shaping up to be big for the tablet. “IT managers waiting and holding off on refreshing equipment, might consider it this year,” he said. Users would take a shine to the minor interface tweaks for more usability, he said, along with the handwriting and speech recognition improvements. “Intel’s progress with chipsets and the fact that wireless LANs are maturing are other reasons to jump in,” Lee said.

New and improved

So why should resellers and end-users take a tablet? In addition to Microsoft touting the benefits on the OS side, hardware vendors are pitching the latest technology advancements.

The price drops among flat-panel displays and the ubiquity of wireless networks were making tablet PCs more attractive, HP product manager, Sylvia Mills-Vasas, said.

Users could create, review, edit and share content with wireless LAN, Bluetooth or Infrared or through wired access to the network, she said.

The tablet was a growing part of HP’s business, and is replacing the ultraportable range, Mills-Vasas said. Agrowing reliance on mobility was driving sales.

“We’ve found the tablet has grown the mobile product space and hasn’t taken away from notebook or pocket PC sales – instead it has added to it,” she said.

The company offered a trio of form factors including tablets with removable keyboards and ultra-portable notebook gear, along with a desktop version.

Users can make presentations using digital ink, capture handwritten notes in a meeting and later convert to text, read electronic magazines or books and send handwritten messages wirelessly during meetings.

The newest model, the TC1100, offered optional docking solutions (including HP Tablet PC Docking Station; and an external USB multibay cradle), she said, along with the bridge battery feature, which allowed for faster swapping while in stand-by mode.

“You can go to a meeting or out on the road – it’s very versatile for a mobile user – and will potentially capture a large part of the market,” Mills-Vasas said.

As an added feature, Fujitsu had implemented smart card slots into its latest gear, the ST4000, said Lee, and was set to launch splash proofing.

The company added Centrino technology to the latest model, due to customer demand, Lee said. The model also offered better battery life and power management.

“As well as an improved design, it overcomes some of the heat issues,” he said.

Toshiba, for its part, was touting improved graphics capability (customers were asking for a higher resolution screen because older models weren’t offering good clarity or brightness), greater storage capacity and enhanced voice recognition, which was particularly attractive to the legal industry, product manager, Justin White said.

“In terms of the latest and greatest, users want a flat screen to write on and to be able to continue to swivel with the slate,” White claimed.

There’s a growing opportunity for partners to drive tablet sales, making money on both horizontal and vertical plays (including health, manufacturing, legal and media), Beck said. The big draw was improved worker productivity.

Beck said Microsoft was working with a host of vendors including Acer, Intel, Toshiba and Fujitsu in a bid to attract wider appeal.

“Our vision is within three to five years, all laptops will be Tablet PCs” he said.

Vertical front

“The next 12 to 18 months we’ll see a wider deployment. Customers have had time to evaluate and test the technology, and it may not be for everyone, but there are some practical uses.”

The horizontal push involved touting the benefits of OneNote to businesses, he said.

This was the most widely used application and took advantage of the Tablet PCs form factor.

Going forward, consumers wanted to learn how to use InfoPath.

On the vertical front, Microsoft has brainstormed with 40 ISVs worldwide (Autodesk and Corel included) in a bid to develop industry-specific applications tailored to meet the needs of different vertical markets.

Later this month, Microsoft is hosting a mobile developers conference in Sydney — with Tablet PCs on the menu — that will dish out tips to ISVs on how to better develop applications.

Some of the discussion will revolve around developing ink-based forms, for example. “If you’re out in the field and you need to sign a purchase order, customers can electronically sign it,” Beck said.

In a bid to grab market share, Woo said vendors were wisely targeting the reseller community with a vertical go-to-market strategy.

“The majority of deployments of Tablet PCs will be done through VARs,” he said. “It is not just selling a box. It is deal-specific and therefore requires specific skill sets and experience in certain vertical markets.”

But HPs’ Mills-Vasas said market awareness amongst resellers and end-users remained the top challenge in growing tablet sales.

With the rollout of the latest model, the HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1100, the company is offering training courses to end-users through a third-party (Belkin) in major Australian cities.

As part of the channel strategy, the company was working with partners and ISVs to develop applications for select vertical markets, Mills-Vasas said.

“Within the health sector, work involves automating patient records; while stock management apps are also on the table,” she said, “where serial numbers are scanned and saved to the hardware, eliminating the need for data entry.”

“We’re getting 30 calls a month from ISVs offering a range of solutions,” Mills-Vasas said.

And once the OS enhancements are rolled out (when there’s new support for ISV applications (when users can put ink on top of certain Web pages, for example), she expects channel partners to get busy peddling tablets.

“The channel will capture a lot more sales when the enhancements to the OS are out,” Mills-Vasas said.

Toshiba is launching a national road show that will include tablet training and selling tips.

“The biggest inhibitor we see is lack of awareness ... Some resellers are a tad reluctant because it’s easy to sell a notebook. But it’s a large market and a great way to differentiate,” Toshiba’s White said, adding they can make more money with higher margins.

Toughing it out

The trend towards ruggedised gear (particularly in the military) would also increase momentum for the tablet, Panasonic’s strategic marketing executive for mobile business and computer systems, Darren Davis, said.

Panasonic was pitching two ToughBook models that Davis said could be carried up a ladder, hung on a wall as a tablet or mounted in a vehicle like a notebook.

The company was pitching the wireless-ready ToughBook range to power and gas utilities, construction and emergency services, he said, where asset management and emergency management control were essential.

High price might be a stumbling block, he said.

“You’re paying a premium, but in the long-term it saves money because it lasts longer,” he said. “If you drop it — which the majority of people do — it will be okay.”

The company is launching a new ToughBook Premium reseller program to get VARs excited about selling the technology.

Program details are being worked out.

HP has also tossed its hat into the ring, rolling out a rugged Tablet PC.

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