Can troubled tablet take off at last?

Tablet PCs: Far from transforming the ways mobile PCs are used, the tablet has been stymied by cost and inflexibility. Will new facilities in Windows Vista change that?

In late 2002, the tablet PC launched amid claims that it would revolutionise the way people worked and bring pen technology into the mainstream. Bill Gates predicted, "Within five years, most mobile PCs will have tablet PC functionality."

With just over a year to go, it looks like this prediction will not come true. The tablet specification has failed to sell, and it has not opened up the anticipated significant new application areas. As an alternative to proprietary pen technologies, it has consolidated its position, but that is all.

Almost four years on from launch, Microsoft is producing a second version of its pen extensions as part of the Windows Vista operating system, but will this change the prognosis of steady but low growth?

At present, tablets are used primarily in sectors such as healthcare, local government, utilities, petrochemicals, financials and education.

Analyst company IDC said suppliers have concentrated on vertical applications such as transport, logistics or field service, where tablets could have a big role to play. In many of these instances, the PCs have been ruggedised which is why the specialist companies have benefited from the tablet market.

There is demand for tablet PCs but, according to IDC figures, it represents only about 1% of the total notebook PC market. By 2010 this will have grown to 3%, IDC said.

Andrew Brown, IDC programme manager for mobile computing and mobile devices, said, "The market is pretty stagnant but we do see the volumes creeping up steadily year after year."

However, he added, "The volumes may be doubling each year but they are still very, very small."

For the most part, the role of the tablet PC is to get information that is traditionally written on paper forms into the system more quickly. By transferring those forms into a pen-enabled digital format, products such as Microsoft Office Infopath 2003 have allowed an electronic workflow to be created.

The arduous task of typing in the day's paper forms has been eliminated and this time-saving is where much of the return on investment lies.

Cambridgeshire County Council's Social Services Department, for example, uses tablets to provide a mobile information-gathering and sharing system. Its elderly-patient care team comprises several agencies that use collaborative software to harmonise the service they offer to clients. Before the advent of the electronic service, an elderly patient would be visited separately by a social worker and a healthcare worker, and most of their questions would be duplicated.

The council's ICT department devised a tablet application, the Cambridgeshire Assessment Tool, to create a single patient record that could be shared by the visiting team - with the additional benefit that because the tablet uses a pen, the change was less noticeable to team members and clients.

The department reckons the ­tablet-based system saves the council £3m a year by eliminating assessment duplication and has reduced administrative costs by £850,000.

Key to success in Cambridgeshire, however, is that the front end of the system has been developed in-house. If the tablet is to take off as a product that can be deployed across different industry sectors, this flexibility is vital, but expensive.

Beyond custom applications, the industry is looking at developing specialist tablet applications. Ken Chan, product manager at Toshiba, said, "We partner specialist developers and introduce them to businesses that are looking for bespoke applications. We have not gone as far as putting in our own software because everybody has a slightly different twist on what they want."

Instead, Toshiba uses specialist developers to implement custom applications for end-users. Chan said, "I think our customers are pretty happy to accept the fact that the tablet PC adds a little more dynamic usage to the notebook and, to them, that is justification enough."

To many potential users, though, justification is bound up with price and the tablet PC is still costlier than normal laptops. "While the cost of the pen module has come down, it is still higher than the standard machine," said Brown.

One option for the industry is to offer handwriting features as standard on laptops. "The idea of all components just becoming standard fittings is fine but every little component makes a difference to the price," said Brown. "Adding anything non-standard is a gamble."

Another suggestion for reducing the price to end-users is to replace the electromagnetic screen and pen used in tablet PCs with a cheaper passive touchscreen similar to those used in PDAs and mobile phones. A touchscreen also means that a tablet PC does not become unusable if the pen is misplaced - any stylus can be used. However, some industry observers feel the passive touchscreen is dated and does not offer the accuracy possible with electromagnetic fields.

For now, then, the choice to go for a tablet PC remains an additional outlay, the case for which has to be argued. The Cambridgeshire example shows that paying a little bit more can be justified if there is a compelling need and the realised savings are high enough, but the implementation costs are inflated by the need for bespoke software.

This, however, is where Vista comes in. The new Windows operating system will be accompanied by a pen-capable Office Suite containing forms creation software that can be integrated into a collaborative workflow, making it a much simpler option than the bespoke applications route.

This will also further enhance Microsoft Onenote - arguably the only true tablet PC application - which is the equivalent of a word processor for the pen-driven world.

The hardware challenges are also being tackled. Effective handwriting recognition has always been a bone of contention with users. Vista offers an advance on Windows XP for tablet PCs because the recognition can be tailored to a particular user, in the same way as speech recognition systems.

So how would an application like Onenote best be used?

David Bradshaw, a principal analyst at Ovum, said, "The ideal situation is that you sit in a room and take handwritten notes. Not only can you file the handwritten text away but also accurately search it."

At the moment this is only possible once the contents have been recognised. Bradshaw said, "The ideal would be if the recognition system was reliable enough to use it in a raw state without having to go back over the notes and correct them."

Although Onenote does have a search feature, it searches hand­written files by converting the writing to text. So a word that is incorrectly recognised becomes invisible to the search engine. This is better than nothing but Vista's trainable pen input should improve the hit rate.

In the meantime, objections about practicality and cost may both be tackled by a new, smaller tablet PC on the horizon. Despite their relative portability, tablets have been criticised for still being too heavy for sustained use when carried like a clipboard, and computers based on the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) specification devised by Microsoft's Origami Project are starting to appear at shows and conferences. These are much smaller and lighter versions of the tablet and look like oversized Gameboys.

But although the UMPC will carry the whole Windows Vista operating system, Brown does not believe such a device would prove popular with end-users because it would fall between two stools - between high-end handheld devices and ultraportable notebooks. "They will have even less impact than tablet PCs," he said.

"The cost of UMPC systems versus usability is not an equation that really works for the majority of users," said Brown. Although they may be popular in countries such as Japan, he does not expect European end-users to use such a device as their main work PC.

Microsoft's original vision was that specific new roles would give more end-users access to pen technology and provide a horizontal element to what has been traditionally a vertical market product. "Microsoft pitched it as being something for knowledge workers and corridor warriors," said Brown.

At the moment, the main attraction of the tablet PC is its "wow factor". It attracts attention wherever it is used and it may yet be word of mouth that makes or breaks the technology.

Bradshaw said, "I think you will see people using it at a conference, for instance, and there may be a tipping point phenomenon. If enough people see it, then it could take off. If it does reach the point where people see it working for other people then, yes, it will start to gain widespread adoption. But I cannot say that has happened yet."

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