I recently attended an event with Bill Gates where he spent a great deal of time discussing the merits and value of the Tablet PC. Of course, he continues to push these devices as the next truly mobile computing platform and firmly believes that eventually all portable computers will include the basic features of the Tablet as part of their standard design. I asked him how long he thought it would take for this to happen. In his characteristic manner, he stated the process was evolutionary and would take some time to evolve, but he is convinced the Tablet PC is the future of portable computing.
Although many IT managers traditionally don’t view mobile computing through the same lenses as Bill, I see them buying into at least one form of tablet computing for a different reason. In years past, most portable computing devices were brought into sales and field force projects for use over an 18- to 24-month period at best. But due to the current economic drought, as well as tightened IT budgets, the lifecycle of portable computers is being stretched to as long as 36 months. As a result, IT managers are looking more seriously at notebook/Tablet PC combination devices, also known as convertibles, and considering them for their next-generation sales and field force programs.
While most IT managers do not see any killer applications for a Tablet PC today, many of the individuals I spoke with say they believe that eventually some very smart programmers could come out with a stellar app specifically for the Tablet PC in the next two to three years. Consequently, they are now thinking about buying these convertibles to protect them from the obsolescence syndrome.
One sales director I spoke with said his company was about to buy 50 new laptops for its sales group. Although they had considered purchasing new ultralight models, they decided on convertibles instead to cover the current and potential needs of their sales staff, which will have to use these new devices for at least 24 to 36 months. While this trend is just burgeoning today, I think the question of obsolescence, given longer buying cycles, is going to drive more IT managers to consider the Tablet PC convertible platforms sooner than later.
Pick a Platform, Any Platform
On another mobile computing front, while the Tablet PC is starting to gain ground in some sales and field force projects, an older portable platform is finding new life in the form of the NEC MobilePRO 900 Windows CE device. The Windows CE platform, however, has given ground to its cousin, Pocket PC, the key product being pushed by Microsoft and its OEM partners in many mobile projects today. Indeed, one of the major proponents of the Windows CE platform, HP, has dropped its version of its half-VGA-screen device, leaving NEC as the last major vendor to keep alive this Windows CE form factor. HP is instead pushing Pocket PC-based devices as its main handheld offering these days.
The new MobilePRO 900 from NEC is a major improvement over its popular 790 model, which is still being used in many field service projects. The MobilePRO 900 sports a 400MHz Intel XScale processor, a bright 8.1-inch, half-VGA STN color screen, a modem and a nearly full-size keyboard. It also has one Compact Flash card slot and one Type I or Type II PC card slot, which allows it to add all types of peripherals such as barcode scanners and Wi-Fi cards. It even has a VGA port so that it can be plugged into a monitor or video projection system, and yet weighs just 1.8 pounds and boasts more than eight hours of battery life. From a design standpoint, it is much more rugged then earlier models and includes newer versions of Microsoft’s Pocket Outlook and CE Office. It even has Windows Media Player for handheld PC, as well as Microsoft’s Terminal Server.
For years I have used the MobilePRO 790 as a lightweight writing device and often take it on the road to get Web e-mail and Web information in lieu of carrying a heavier laptop with me on short trips. But this device has been most popular in field service projects where a handheld device with a screen larger than a Pocket PC device’s is needed and, most importantly, when a keyboard is a critical part of the application.
For example, Ben & Jerry’s, famous for its premium ice creams, wanted to use critical data to help improve customer loyalty and limit stocking problems. Using Thinque Systems’ Mobile Enterprise Application running on NEC MobilePRO 790s, Ben & Jerry’s was able to obtain vital information from its stores and retailers in the field. By synching the data in real time, Ben & Jerry’s is now able to view customer trends and demands on a daily basis, and make sure it can keep a close eye on stock levels.
While Windows CE might still seem like a limited OS on a handheld device, the folks from ExpertCity have launched the Windows CE version of Go To My PC, which makes the NEC 900 even more versatile. Go To My PC is a service that enables a user to take a smaller mobile device on the road and let it fully access and control a laptop or desktop. I have used Go To My PC from the road on an ultralight Windows XP notebook. With Go To My PC, I had complete access and control over the Internet to my more powerful desktop back at the office.
With these kinds of innovative applications, the new NEC MobilePRO 900 will clearly help keep Windows CE an important option for use in FFA projects where a Pocket PC device will not work.
Tim Bajarin is president of Creative Strategies (www.creativestrategies.com), a consultancy based in Campbell, Calif.