Tech talk: Long odds on the Tablet PC

History suggests that Microsoft's Tablet PC will struggle to make its mark in businesses.

History suggests that Microsoft's Tablet PC will struggle to make its mark in businesses.

Is the Tablet PC ready for the big time? We should start to find out next month, when Acer, Hewlett-Packard, Siemens-Fujitsu and other manufacturers join Microsoft in launching PCs in this not-so-new form factor.

There are, of course, some reasons for optimism. First, the new machines have a better operating system than earlier efforts: Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. This captures handwriting with a speed and fluency not seen before on a screen.

Second, there is a computer industry trend towards portable form factors, such as notebook and handheld PCs, rather than desktop machines. The arrival of Wi-Fi (802.11b) networking has now made portability attractive inside a company's offices, as well as on the road.

With a Tablet PC, you can take your computer to meetings, instead of leaving it behind on your desk. And while at meetings, you can make notes in a socially acceptable way: by writing instead of typing.

Third, Tablet PCs can make economic sense. Obviously, most companies will not want to shell out to buy loads of new PCs. However, many computer users now think in terms of having three personal computers: a desktop, a notebook, and a handheld. A convertible Tablet - one that combines a keyboard with a touch-sensitive screen - could be the one machine that replaces all three.

But history suggests that the Tablet PC will struggle to make any headway. At one time, many people believed that handwriting recognition was the natural next step for computing. However, pioneers of this method of input, such as Go Corporation, Slate, Momenta, and Active Book, failed in the marketplace. The first IBM Thinkpad - a tablet PC without a keyboard - did not last long, and Apple's Newton was a spectacular flop.

Also, users who are smart enough to have learned how to touch-type will not be pleased about being driven back to handwriting, especially given the vagaries of handwriting-recognition software.

It is, of course, true that there is already a healthy market for tablet computers. They are used in thousands of vertical applications in the insurance, health care, and transportation industries, as well as for things like market research and sales force automation. Ruggedised versions are used in industrial applications on the factory floor.

But this blue-collar success does not guarantee that Tablet PCs will be able to make the breakthrough required to make them popular among white-collar workers as well.

The Tablet PC could be a huge success, but in my view, the odds are 50:50 at best.

Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian

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