Vendors, users split over promise of Tablet PCs

If you build it, they will come. At least that's what Microsoft Corp. Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates predicts for the future of Tablet PCs.

And yet the most popular PC maker in the world, Dell Computer Corp., is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Tablet PCs. Similarly cautious are other major players such as IBM Corp., Gateway Inc., and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP).

"We do not believe that [Tablet PCs] are ready for prime time," said Pamposh Zutshi, the director of marketing for Dell's Optiplex PC line. "I haven't heard anyone asking for them," he said.

Several Dell officials said that the company will delay any Tablet PC development for the next year and a half.

Likewise, Gateway is taking a pass on the Tablet PC craze.

"We don't have any plans on the horizon for a Tablet-type device," said Gateway representative Lisa Emard. "We dabbled in some non-PC devices over the last year, and learned a lot from our customers. We feel the focus now is on networked PCs and low-cost notebooks that can get the job of a Tablet PC done."

IBM is "not interested" in going forward with the development of an IBM-branded Tablet PC anytime soon, said Leo Suarez, the vice president of worldwide product marketing for personal computing devices at IBM.

Suarez said that in light of the current economic slowdown and other related conditions, IBM sees Tablet PCs as "an experiment" that simply does not fit in to what he called Big Blue's current "back-to-basics" approach to selling IT services and related hardware.

Of cutting-edge computer systems like Tablet PC and other devices with unique features such as detachable keyboards, Suarez said, "There are enough companies out there to sell them in the millions right now, but I don't see it being IBM."

Like Dell officials, Suarez said, "I've yet to find a customer that has asked for a Tablet PC."

Across the board, Dell, Gateway, and IBM said they would listen to their customers when deciding when and if to go forward with a Tablet PC product, but potential customers at Comdex were sending mixed signals.

Many users attending Comdex expressed similar caution.

"It's cute, but I don't know whether I'd use it or not," said Forrest Howell, an employee of American Electric Power and a Comdex attendee.

Compaq stands out as the largest U.S. PC maker to wholeheartedly commit to delivering a Tablet PC next year. Meanwhile, a number of Japanese PC manufacturers including Acer, Toshiba, FIC, and Sony are ramping up Tablet PCs based on ultra-portable notebook technology they have each proved to be successful in Japan.

Toshiba is working hard to develop technology for the Tablet PC form factor, noting that it's been investigating the space for about 10 years.

Oscar Koenders, vice president of worldwide product planning at Toshiba's computer system group in Irvine, Calif., said Toshiba is not rushing to ship the Tablet PCs it currently has under development.

Departing from the "wait-and-see" stance, Koenders said Toshiba remains committed to the platform, but said it is too early to tell exactly what impact it will have on the traditional notebook market.

"But someone's got to develop the technology," he said.

And the technology that enables such things as swiveling monitors is inherently complex, he said. Other technology under development includes new hard disks and batteries that will support the Tablet PC's slim design.

As a result, Koenders commented that Toshiba will only launch products when it believes they are solid and the market is ready. Launching bad products too early could turn customers away by virtue of bad experiences and "kill the market".

During his keynote, Gates showed off Acer's Tab100 Tablet PC, an ultra-portable system running Transmeta's upcoming TM5800 low-power Crusoe processor. Also on stage was Compaq's Tablet PC prototype.

Set to launch simultaneously with the introduction of the Windows XP Tablet PC OS, the Compaq Tablet PC will be "targeted at business first," said Ted Clark, the vice president of Compaq's Tablet PC division.

Compaq sees the corporate market as the most fertile ground for early Tablet PCs, followed by college students. Widespread consumer adoption of Tablet PCs "is a few generations out," Clark said.

Although still in the design phase, Compaq's Tablet PC will weight only 3 pounds at launch date, and Clark said the system will utilize the fastest mobile processor available at the time, be it from Intel, Transmeta, or AMD.

"We're still looking at all the possibilities," he said.

Compaq's Tablet PC will leverage the features of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition like the ability to write handwritten notes in applications such as Outlook and Word, and to edit those notes as if they were digital text. Clark said Compaq is working on "fine-tuning the digitizer" of its Tablet PC to optimize Windows Messenger, which lets users exchange notes or sketches using the company's instant messaging software.

Of these techniques, Clark said, "You want to capture messages in the way you think."

But the absence of major U.S. PC manufacturers from the rush to market Tablet PCs could apply drag to the adoption of Tablet PCs in the United States.

Not all users were dubious of the Tablet PC's potential.

Thomas Lancaster of Larson Dodge, in Larson, Fla., said he thinks the Tablet PC is going to be "revolutionary." Lancaster believes Tablet PCs are going to make interacting in the office more fluid and that he would give up his desktop for a Tablet PCOn the other hand, Willem Endhoven, the director of global business development for Philips, in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, said Tablet PCs were "too bulky," and thought a wiser decision was simply to go with current PDA (personal digital assistant) products that offered many of the same features.

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