The problem with Slate PCs for business

As Apple unveils its tablet PC, Computer Weekly considers whether the technology will take off in businesses.

Apple is following in the...

As Apple unveils its tablet PC, Computer Weekly considers whether the technology will take off in businesses.

Apple is following in the footsteps of Microsoft, which launched The Tablet, a general purpose portable computer running Windows XP, some years ago. It had a touchscreen and a touch user interface. The Slate PC is smaller and lighter, arguably more desirable, but experts still feel business applications will be quite limited.

"We are not convinced the tablet/slate device could ever be a general purpose computer," says Natalie Spitz, senior analyst at Canalys. She believes Slate PCs will remain in the domain of form-filling. But there are opportunities in the consumer market. "I see Tablet/Slate PCs making a big impact in the home, where they could replace iPods as larger music players and be used as intelligent television screens." Tablet/Slate PCs can also be used as e-readers.

This is probably why Apple has unveiled its version, according to industry experts. In a blog posting on the Apple device, Forrester Research analysts Charles Golvin and James McQuivey, said, "It is flawed in meaningful ways: It is a computer without a keyboard, it is a digital reader with poor battery life and a high price tag, and it is a portable media player that does not fit in a pocket."

The problem with the Slate form factor is that it requires two hands to use, says Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at Quocirca, "Tablet/Slate devices cannot be used single-handled, unlike smartphones. They are also seen as laptop-like devices, which require the user's full attention. This means it is not possible to walk around a room while using a Tablet or Slate PC."

If applications developers take into account these limitations, Bamforth sees no reason Tablet and Slate PCs cannot be used to provide users with contextual information. For instance, he said a water engineer inspecting a valve in the field could use the camera built into a Slate PC to capture an image and overlap relevant information about the valve. If the Slate PC was equipped with a GPS device then it would also be able to record the exact location of the valve.

However, for business applications to take-off, users will need access to some kind of commercial application store front. Bamforth argues that Apple's AppStore is probably irrelevant, as the costs of apps on the AppStore are nominal, and often aimed at mass appeal rather than a vertical niche. "Software companies need to be encouraged to develop applications." But a store front for high-end industry applications does not yet exist for the Slate PC, he said.

How Microsoft broke into Slate

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer unveiled a new Microsoft platform, the Slate PC at the Consumer Electronics Show this month

Years ago Microsoft began its foray into Slate PCs with the launch of the Tablet PC, a device that found a niche in organisations that wanted to provide electronic forms such as in hospitals, social services, warehouse management and retail.

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