recently visited Microsoft’s Web site and was surprised that it only took three clicks to get from the home page to the main page for information about the Windows XP Tablet Edition. I figured it would take more. Tablet PCs have been available for just over three years now, and though Microsoft lists 15 tablet manufacturers—touting 28 different models—on its Web site, I bet most readers of Mobile Enterprise would be hard-pressed to find one being used out in the real world.
As evidenced by sales figures, Tablet PCs haven’t exactly catapulted into mainstream computing. The enhanced functionality and success they bring to the workplace, though, are real. Until recently, one reason for the slow take-off in sales was simple marketing. When tablets were first launched, they were lauded as new and different forms of computing, with a platform that appeared to be different from XP. The tablet manufacturers I spoke with for this story all agreed that the new message needs to be about XP-based devices that have the tablet functionality as an additional feature.
Sarah Bussell, category manager for ultra-portables and tablets at HP, says, “On the OS standpoint, we want less differentiating between the OS’s, as this can be a barrier to adoption. It initially precluded sales of Tablet PCs because IT managers thought that tablets couldn’t function with the standard XP-based systems. To be a mainstream player, it has to be the most mainstream offering it can be, and that goes for the hardware and the OS—every piece has to be easy. Until that happens, tablets won’t take off as quickly as everyone hoped. Day by day we see more convertibles on the market, which is helpful. All of those things are validating the technology and explain what it is and help people understand that tablet is an extra feature, not strange technology.”
Tablets are gaining in popularity, according to Paul Moore, director of mobile product marketing with Fujitsu. “Our most popular product is a Tablet PC. The T4000 has been a very successful product. You have the best of both worlds there. More and more customers are starting to adopt this form factor. The success stories are getting out there and people are starting to talk and starting to adopt them and deploy them in their organizations. Pretty much every facet of the business world is finding a way to utilize the tablet OS,” says Moore.
What sets tablets apart from regular XP devices, of course, is the active digitizer and the ability for users to write, or Ink, directly onto the screen. Interacting with the screen as if it were a piece of paper lends itself to a wide array of new and interesting uses, such as filling out forms. Unlike PDAs, which allow you to use your fingernail or Bic to tap away, tablets with active digitizers require a special pen. This permits users to lay the tablet flat and rest their arm on it while writing with no worries of activating every program on the desktop.
Tablet PCs are available in two distinct form factors. The slate model is essentially a large screen, typically about the size of a legal pad (imagine just the screen of your laptop, only thicker). Slates generally do not have on-board optical drives or keyboards, but most slate manufacturers offer these as add-on features with docking bay systems. When pieced together, slate systems can provide a very normal desktop experience, as well as unlimited mobility and comfort when being used as a standalone product. Slates tend to be lighter than most other tablets.
Convertible tablets look almost identical to regular laptops but are equipped with a hinge that allows users to swivel the screen around and lay it flat, emulating the appearance and functionality of the slate models. Unlike slates, convertible models will include features such as optical bays. Convertibles are mostly heavier than slate models.
Which are most people choosing? “The convertible is selling better, hands down,” says Fujitsu’s Moore. “When you eliminate the commitment of losing a keyboard, it makes it easier for people who were considering it to go there. You’ve always got the backup right there, the ability to use the screen or keyboard without compromises. You can be working on your feet and easily switch between the two modes.”
When HP launched its first Tablet PC, the TC1100, back in 2002, it went with the slate model. But now, it’s moving into the convertible space to help nudge tablets toward mainstream adoption. “Form factor is important,” says HP’s Bussell. “There are a couple of big differences. Just getting people to try out tablets and move into a tablet-thinking environment is difficult. Most people see the slates and are not willing to make that leap. With the convertible, you can get people to learn Ink on their time. They can use it as a standard notebook and try out the new features as they feel comfortable. Once they understand the flexibility of it, it becomes part of the workday.”
As expected with the changed marketing push, the added functionality of convertible tablet PCs means they will, on average, cost $200 more than their standard-laptop equivalents. “We will continue to see a price premium as long as the hardware costs what it does,” notes Bussell. “There are a few things involved. The digitizer itself, the hinge and the wide viewing angle panel’s extra layers of specialized glass add to the cost.”
Bert Haskell, senior product marketing manager with Motion Computing, a maker of slate Tablet PCs, notes that, “The tablet market is still very much about the basic form factor, battery life and mobility. Particular technology features act as differentiators, and we find that customers really care about how the display looks and the quality of the info on the screen.”
To date, tablets have seen most of their success in the vertical markets, particularly government, insurance and healthcare. “Healthcare is historically the fastest adopter,” says Fujitsu’s Moore. “Healthcare saw the benefits, the intuitiveness of using the pen for input, of working with tablets right away. Insurance is another big one and the government has also deployed a lot of our slates.”
HP’s Bussell noted that most of its customers who adopted the TC1100 were also in the vertical space. “Now that it’s been out there for a few years,” says Bussell, “we see more interest from business and mainstream users. There’s a lot of interest in education, and new ways of teaching with Tablet PCs are being developed. We had UNLV supply tablets to students for note-taking. With that you’re breeding a generation of Tablet PC users.”
The good news is that more and more verticals are opening up every day. Motion’s Haskell says, “Obviously we have a lot of momentum in healthcare and FFA. We’ve targeted some newer markets like distribution and retail, beverage companies and warehouse environments. We’re seeing a great deal of interest on the manufacturing side, as applications for tablets are letting them be used for a variety of tasks like quality checking, maintenance, engineering functions and inventory management. For those with mission-critical mobile lifestyles, they are finding that the highly portable device really fits the way they work.”
As long as there are forms that need to be filled out, using a pen increases speed and accuracy. “With more FFA and SFA uses being developed, we’ll begin to see tablets in the warehouse, the financial district, the trading floor, areas where we didn’t traditionally see computers but now a full-powered Windows machine can go,” says Moore.
As the supplier of the operating system, Moore says, “The best thing Microsoft can do is get more applications out there.” There are certainly not as many applications as for XP, but the number is growing.
HP’s Bussell agrees. “I think we can always use more. The more work that’s done, the more it’ll be useful to a wider base of people. A lot more can be done on tablets than we’re doing today. To be even more useful than they already are, specific applications need to be developed.”
Motion feels that Microsoft is doing an outstanding job of developing and supporting the Tablet PC concept. “That’s one of the main reasons that tablets continue to grow in the vertical apps,” says Haskell. “The enterprise customers sense that Microsoft is fully behind the Tablet PC. We put a lot of attention into the design of our products, and we think that a combination of the OS and Motion hardware is helping to drive the customer satisfaction that people are seeing with Tablet PCs.”
But the tablet’s success hinges on more than just applications and support from Microsoft. “It’s a combination of factors,” says Moore. “The active digitizer and being able to expand the battery life has made them viable, and being able to develop form factors that are convenient and comfortable is critical. All deployments have an aspect of people working on their feet. If the machine is awkward or unbalanced or has poor battery life, then it will be rejected. If you can’t combine all that with the OS, then you won’t have a product line. Fujitsu has always done pen-input computing and we’ll keep doing it. Tablet PCs have a great future. When Vista comes out, that’s going to help it even more.”
Education will also play a big role. “Users didn’t understand the tablet,” says Bussell, “and thought it was a separate system totally. We as an industry need to show them it’s a notebook-plus. We need to talk differently about the Tablet OS. As long as people understand that extra features and flexibility will be available, then it will begin to take off.”
Battle of the Minis
Since its launch, the Tablet PC has been only available with screen sizes from approximately 10.4 to 12.1 inches. Microsoft had set the specifications for Tablet PCs in that range. However, the folks in Redmond recently relaxed some of their specs and three new Tablet PCs quickly sprung into the market.
First on the scene was Motion Computing, building on the success of its flagship LE1600 with the new LS800. With
such admirable attributes as an 8.4-inch SVGA TFT LCD display, integrated Ethernet and Bluetooth, a Secure Digital slot, a fingerprint reader, Speak Anywhere audio technology, an ambient light sensor, an Intel Centrino ULV processor and
ample memory and storage options, the LS800 is hard to resist.
Bert Haskell, Motion Computing’s senior product marketing manager, says, “Developing the LS800 was driven by our
customers. We had a strong message that they wanted a tablet that was much smaller, lighter and more mobile. The best mobility example was that they wanted it to fit into a lab coat pocket. That was our starting point. With this kind
of product, you can put it into a pocket or carry it with a bump case using a shoulder strap and it becomes unencumbering. Full-strength computing power can now be slung across your shoulder. We’ve had some customers strap it to a tool belt.
You can quickly access it with the pen interface to reference or record information. You don’t have to worry about misplacing it. It helps facilitate high-mobility workflows.”
Since the LS800 was released, it has seen brisk sales growth as word of mouth touts its capabilities. “We have a lot of field evaluations going on with big customers who are looking at large deployments,” says Haskell.
Next on the list of mighty minis is Fujitsu’s P1500D. The P1500D was originally released as an ultra-portable Windows XP device, sporting a 8.9-inch convertible touchscreen, Intel Pentium ULV processor, keyboard and a wide array of connectivity options. When Microsoft relaxed its tablet specifications, Fujitsu took the opportunity to give customers the option of choosing Tablet Edition with the P1500D. “What we have,” says Fujitsu’s Paul Moore, director of mobile product marketing, “is a very light and mobile product. The P1500D is the smallest and, at 2 pounds, lightest convertible with full Tablet PC functionality. Our product is brighter, has a bigger screen, an attached keyboard, longer battery life, lower cost and weighs the same as our competitors. Which would you select?”
One major difference, though, is that rather than re-launch the P1500D with a new, active digitizer for the screen, Fujitsu is opting to keep the existing touchscreen as-is. Users will be able to interact with the P1500D without the use of a special pen.
The most recent entry in this category is OQO’s ultra-portable computer. Launched at CES two years ago, the original OQO Model 1 computer was a fully functional Windows XP device shrunk down to the size of a PDA, complete with sliding 5-inch active digitizer, qwerty keyboard and a 20MB hard drive. OQO refreshed the Model 1, now the Model 1+, in September 2005 with a faster 1GHz processor, 512 MB of standard memory, a 30GB hard drive and both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless connectivity. OQO is re-launching the device
at CES this month with the Windows Tablet PC Edition.
“Essentially, the Model 1+ is unchanged from a hardware perspective,” says Elizabeth Bastiaanse, OQO’s VP of marketing. “This change was driven by our customers. They have been asking us to do this for a long time. It retains the same value proposition, but with the added features of the Tablet OS, including handwriting recognition.” OQO expects the tablet version of the Model 1+ to cost $50 to $100 above the base XP model, and it will be shipping in volume on or around February 1.