Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates promoted the Tablet PC during his Comdex keynote address for the second straight year, even though the machines aren't expected to be ready for another year. And the prototypes that PC makers unveiled this week give potential users only a glimpse of what they might see in shipping products.
Yet Comdex attendees have already begun to envision potential business scenarios under which their companies might benefit from using the lightweight, notepadlike, fully functioning PCs, which can be used with keyboards (either hard-wired or via an infrared link) or pens and digital ink. They will also have the capability to be connected to a wireless network.
Harold Knowlton, CIO at Devon, Pa.-based Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors, which has about 900 employees and 3,500 independent agents, said the Tablet PC "has the potential to really leverage our agents' ability to service customers in the field.
"Depending on how the manufacturers configure the hardware, this could be a logical next step in our business," Knowlton said.
Knowlton said he has been scoping out wireless personal digital assistants (PDA) but thinks agents would be more "in tune" to standard PC-type functions, rather than the customized subset they would get with PDAs. He said he likes the fact that the machines give users the option to write notes and draw pictures. Plus, from an IT standpoint, his firm could go wireless without having to rewrite its Web applications to be accessible from the Tablet PCs, Knowlton said.
Dan North, a webmaster at Hollywood, Calif.,-based Frederick's of Hollywood Inc., said Tablet PCs may help bridge the gap for his company's district managers, many of whom are "technophobes." He said he could also imagine using the Tablet PC in meetings with his CEO. "But I don't know if I could use something like this," North said with a chuckle. "I don't know if even this could recognize my handwriting."
The Tablet PCs being promoted by Microsoft will have the ability to transform handwriting into typed text and will also be able to store the digital ink just the way a person writes it. That data can then be moved or searched, similarly to the way it is now done on PCs.
North said he likes the fact that the Tablet PC will let him draw charts in a document. "That's next to impossible in [Microsoft] Word. If I can just scribble it out, my life's a lot easier," he said.
"I can definitely see a use for [the Tablet PC]," North added. "The key hurdle will be cost."
Several of Microsoft's reseller partners declined to discuss cost. But David Lee, director of mobile product marketing at Acer America Corp., said he expects the machines to sell for less than US$2,000. Kyle Thornton, a product marketing manager at Fujitsu PC Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., said he expects Tablet PCs to sell in the range of $1,600 to $2,300.
Gary Steinkamp, president of Phoenix-based The Health Source Inc., which sells software and computers to doctors, small clinics and hospitals, said he's seeing huge interest in Tablet PCs from health care professionals.
"In my industry, electronic medical records is now the buzz," Steinkamp said. "They want to get to an electronic paperless office."
Doctors want to be able to jot down patient notes at their offices or at the hospital and not have to re-enter the information into their computers, he said. They also want to be able to take their computers home and access the network to view medical records when they're on call, Steinkamp said.
Steinkamp was so anxious to check out the new Tablet PCs that he spent time looking at the 4.3 lb. Tablet PC that Walnut, Calif.-based ViewSonic Corp. will begin shipping this week. That Tablet PC, which comes equipped with Windows 2000 Professional, doesn't meet the various technical specifications that Microsoft has listed for Tablet PCs that will run the specialized version of its Windows XP operating system.
Most notably, ViewSonic's Tablet PC doesn't have an active digitizer -- which samples handwriting or tracks the movement of the pen -- that can function at a rate of more than 125 times per second. The ViewSonic machine, which employs four-wire resistive touch, samples at a rate of about 25 times per second, according to senior group manager John Smith.
The end result is that the handwriting sometimes doesn't appear smooth and can be difficult to read, and the handwriting recognition software often doesn't transform the characters into their correct typed-text counterparts.
"This is not designed for long e-mails and documents," Smith said, noting that the pen is most useful for selecting menu items and writing short notes. ViewSonic does plan to ship a Tablet PC that conforms to the Microsoft requirements in the second half of next year, Smith said.
Andrew Dixon, a Microsoft group marketing manager for the Tablet PC, said the digitizer sends a signal back and forth between the pen and the electromagnetic layer built into the Tablet PC. A typical mouse does this sampling 30 or 40 times per second.
Other PC makers displaying prototype machines include Acer Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., Fujitsu and Toshiba America Information Systems. Among those, only a Compaq official would not let the media touch, hold or use its Tablet PC prototype.
"I think there's a future for it," said Rodger Soper, who works in information services for Disney Worldwide Services Inc. in Burbank, Calif. "It's something, when you're in meetings, it's very quick to take notes and be able to put your thoughts together and then later highlight it, e-mail it to the rest of the group. I think it has a lot of potential."
Soper, who had also seen last year's demonstration of the Tablet PC, said he was happy to see that Microsoft will extend Office XP to take advantage of the unique capabilities of the device. "That's going to make it really work," he said. "I think it's going to make it more of a productivity tool."
Ellen Bristow, IT director for the 540-person San Juan County government, headquartered in Aztec, N.M., said she thinks the Tablet PC will be particularly useful for commissioners who "aren't real computer-literate."
"I think it would be real beneficial to them to be able to sit and take notes instead of typing," Bristow said.
But David Bailey, a research analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison, an investment bank in New York, said he doesn't think many people will use the Tablet PC in the near term. "A lot of people are just trying to get more productivity out of the PCs that they have, rather than going to a whole new form factor and a new set of applications," Bailey said. "So at this point, I think it's more of a demonstration of capabilities."
He said that he foresees limited potential for the Tablet PC at his company and that whatever potential there is will be in the distant future.
"People keep trying to wring more uses out of the old form factors, the old PCs. I'm somewhat skeptical about their ability to really drive into new markets at this point," Bailey said. "A lot of these ideas have been around for a long time. IBM Corp. had a tablet PC, the Word Pad, out several years ago with limited success, and a lot of people are working on better ways of connecting businesses and consumers to business. I think they've demonstrated some really strong uses, but they're more evolutionary than revolutionary, at this point."
Tom Sabatino, a consultant for T.C. Rose Co., a computer sales and service company in North Tonawanda, N.Y., said he doesn't expect to see Fortune 500 companies make giant leaps to new technology.
"You can't just dump a new product into a corporate structure without bringing the whole corporation upward, and for many corporations, that's too costly," Sabatino said, adding that he can, however, envision the Tablet PC being useful for particular individuals in limited areas within corporations.