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Taking tablets beyond key vertical markets

The Victorian Metropolitan Ambulance Service has given tablet PCs a nod, arming more than 300 paramedics across 30 teams with ruggedised Panasonic laptops.

The deal will see the vendor's CF-18 Toughbooks in use across the service's entire fleet of 160 ambulances, Panasonic product marketing manager, John Penn, said.

Used primarily in tablet PC form, in combination with the Victorian Ambulance Clinical Information System (VACIS) software program, the technology is helping paramedics simplify the process of capturing patient data for further analysis and reporting.

Tablet PCs are playing an increasingly important role in select verticals like healthcare and emergency services. In this environment, there's an acceleration of wireless infrastructure and point-of-care devices.

In healthcare, tablets are helping medical staff stay at the bedside, increasing efficiency and quality of care, Penn said. In-vehicle deployments are particularly popular in emergency services. Tablet technology is also hot in utilities, mining, construction and transport.

"In certain verticals, tablets are attractive because of the rugged nature of the PC," he said. "People want to use the PC as a tool, and not have to use kid gloves. In healthcare, reliability is critical. It needs to be able to withstand knocks and bumps."

In all markets, there is a growing opportunity for resellers to pitch specialised software including GPS and integrate it with hardware, Penn said, highlighting the example of the Metropolitan ambulance service using the VACIS software.

"Resellers can take specialist solutions to market, use their integration skills and integrate the software," he said. "This offers additional margin compared to traditional notebooks."

Built to last

The built-in GPS module is particularly attractive in the utilities market for asset tracking but tablet usage scenarios are growing all the time. From scaling Mount Everest and facing extreme temperatures alongside Australian adventurer, Rex Pemberton, to being used in outdoor fireworks shows, Penn said Toughbook PCs are increasingly harsh environments.

Toughbooks were used to meet the extreme demands of live computer-controlled fireworks displays at outdoor events such as the Australia Day fireworks, he said.

"The Toughbook CF-18 convertible notebook/tablet PCs purchased by Howard and Sons provide protection against vibration and shock; are specially sealed to resist damage from liquid, dirt and dust; and are used tablet-style to provide touchscreen operation to drive the shows."

How is market acceptance? According to Gartner, the tablet PC market is still experiencing slow but steady growth in vertical applications. The market analyst firm predicted tablet PCs will start becoming mainstream computing devices until next year. IDC hardware analyst, Michael Sager, was less bullish about the technology's chances of gaining broad acceptance so quickly but agreed vertical markets were its biggest growth area at the moment. One interesting market shift beyond the vertical market play was the corporate push towards tablets. Sager said this was particularly significant because it was a new user group.

"It's now no longer just a vertical market story," he said. "There's been significant growth in the corporate market. Third or fourth generation users of notebooks are moving towards tablets.

"While the tablet heritage is in vertical markets, numbers show it's moving over to the corporate arena. Helping to drive the shift is the increasing number of third-party applications."

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Tale of two tablets

Resellers can pitch two flavours of tablet: the slate, where there's no keyboard directly attached but users can plug one in via a USB port; or the convertible, which has a keyboard and can act like a traditional laptop. Locally, the tablet convertible has been the early winner because of its practical functionality, Sager added.

Catering to one or both categories, market-leading vendors including HP, Acer, Toshiba and Lenovo are now in the tablet game and jockeying for position, he said. Asus will make its first tablet PC available in June. The company reportedly plans to roll out a 13-inch screen, use two hard drives and feature fingerprint authentication.

"We need Dell to get into it. The market needs one more major, and then we will see another growth spurt," Sager said. Acer was one of the first hardware vendors to partner with Microsoft to launch tablet PCs in November 2002, according to mobile product business manager, Lindsay Tobin. Tablet PCs are an area the corporate market has been taking up recently, he said, with customers like Orica, Sensis and ANZ using them in conjunction with sales automation software for mobile sales staff. Resellers could look to exploit opportunities in under-serviced markets like the service industries, finance and education, which were still to achieve full potential. A top focus for all markets is the push towards biometrics. Acer's latest model, the C200, features integrated fingerprint security for investment protection. Another top feature is the slide and fold display, Tobin said, which is ideal for business professionals on the move as well as healthcare workers, mobile field teams and SOHO users. While sales have been slow to date, Tobin said tablet momentum was improving. Acer only plays in the convertible space.

"The convertible is more comfortable for people to use and the slate has a big learning curve," he said. "In education, for example, teachers have not been comfortable with slates.

"We don't see the slate as being a large enough slice of the market to cater for but that's not to say we're not constantly reviewing our position."

Feature focus

From a feature perspective, tablet users today are most interested in longer battery life, enhanced screen brightness, robust security and advanced connectivity.

"The latest tablet offers extended battery life, up to eight hours usage, as well as a high brightness and contrast," Tobin said.

While Fujitsu PC Australia caters to both the slate and convertible markets, technical manager, David Niu, said the company is seeing lots of action with its convertible tablets in the education, medical and construction circles. The company is offering models suited to indoor and outdoor usage.

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"The latest breakthrough with tablets is the development of dual core, which increases processing power," Niu said. "In the past, there were only indoor or outdoor versions - not a combination of the two. We have models suited to extreme portability, harsh environments or general consumer use."

In addition to specialised software, resellers can add a number of ruggedised cases - including harsh environment padding - depending on vertical market requirements. Sales would lift once Microsoft's Windows Vista was released next year, Sager predicted, because the operating system's handwriting recognition feature supports tablet PCs.

"This will save users the hassle of switching between the general Windows and Tablet PC operating systems," he said. "The tablet PC will become more integrated."

Acer's Tobin also expected to see more tablet sales once Vista is launched.

"Vista will increase opportunities because there will be no separate operating system management," he said. "That has been the biggest issue. Many organisations wanted to roll out the technology but didn't want to manage it separately."

Looking ahead

Microsoft's chief software architect, Bill Gates, has predicted a future where every student has a tablet PC instead of textbooks.

"While we haven't seen that kind of movement yet, the Vista release will increase opportunities in hardware and software development," Tobin said.

Tablet criticism has included problems associated with portability because they are often heavy and awkward. A shortage of third-party applications has also been a worry for users, although IDC's Sager pointed out that this number was on the rise. He said handwriting recognition applications were the most popular.

The digitised screen in the Tablet PC version of Microsoft Windows, for example, lets users incorporate handwritten input into Office applications, annotate documents imported from a server or another computer, instantly change views from portrait to landscape mode and use pen gestures to perform functions such as pointing, clicking, selecting and dragging.

Additionally, one of the most appealing features of Tablet PC is Microsoft's Journal application. It lets users capture thoughts on the computer just as though they were handwriting on a piece of paper.