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Tablet PCs are easy to swallow

Our desire for new gadgets and gizmos is insatiable. Mobile phones are multifunctional, PDAs are mobile phones and laptops have become notebooks the size of personal organisers. But there is a new remedy for our technology cravings and it comes in tablet form.

The first tablet PC prototypes were showcased by Microsoft in 2001, but reaction was muted. Comparisons with Apple’s pen-based Newton device and other failed tablet precursors didn’t help set the industry alight, either.

Microsoft’s solution was to create a fully fledged Windows-based computer in tablet form rather than an another peripheral device like a PDA. Tablets would use state-of-the-art software to ensure almost perfect handwriting recognition, so no more pieces of paper fluttering around or lost in piles on your desk.

And now, in 2003, the tablet is here in all its sexy, silvery slimness.

The only problem is that IT analyst firm IDC estimates that only about 70,000 tablets have been sold so far, with corporate IT departments still undecided about the propriety of tablets, as opposed to desktop PCs or laptops in a business environment.

But Steven Gales, UK senior manager for HP portable devices, says the advanced handwriting capability of tablets will make them a must-have technology for business. “Tablets are designed to work with the way humans work. They come with you on the train and you can use them simply with a pen. If you use any other device you still have to go to your meetings with a big old paper notepad,” Gales says.

The added functionality and familiar Windows operating system means tablets are a universal technology – ideally suited to the busy business executive on the move. “Previous tablets were bespoke technologies for service engineers and the like,” Gales says. “Tablets are now pushing into the mainstream.”

But Stephen Yeo, marketing director at rival developer Wyse, disagrees. He thinks tablets are only really necessary for the ‘supermobile worker’ – people in healthcare, those making deliveries or engineers.

“Tablets are only going to fill a niche market,” Yeo says. “But I suppose if you have a hot-desking environment, or executives who want to access core information for presentations on the move, they might be applicable.”

Wyse’s new tablet product is a rival to the tablet PC but offers the same functionality in a thin-client environment. This means all data and applications are held centrally on a server while the tablet device is merely used for access. So if you lose the tablet or have it stolen, you don’t lose your data.

Yeo likens mobile technology to a fleet of cars. “You want your company cars to come in for servicing as little as possible so you incur fewer costs. If you have a fleet of tablet PCs, you will have to keep pulling them back in for servicing, upgrades, fixing bugs and updating virus-protection software. With a thin-client device, this can all be done centrally from the server.”

He gives the example of a company that serviced aircraft between flights. Previously, the engineers had to run back and forth from their office to access desktop systems, but by implementing a thin-client wireless environment they could access data on the job. This improved aircraft turnarounds to such an extent that the project had paid for itself within two or three days – a rather compelling demonstration of return on investment, but only if you operate a fleet of 747s, perhaps.

As the technology is so immature, neither Wyse nor HP could find a business user to sing its praises. But one early adopter of tablet PCs is Steve Harvey, director of people, profit and culture (aka, finance director) at Microsoft UK. First, the tablet gave Harvey the opportunity to clear out all his IT hardware and he filled a bin liner with PDAs, mobile phones and cables. “I love carrying only two devices – my smartphone and the tablet,” Harvey says.

But the killer application for him, apart from mobile working, reading electronic magazines and annotating presentations by hand, is sending handwritten emails from the tablet. “People respond better to handwritten emails and the tone of that response has changed. It is Steve talking to you now, not some corporate engine.”

But Harvey’s main complaint is an age-old problem facing mobile technology – battery life. “If only they could make the batteries in tablets last for eight hours,” he says. “My handwriting has improved, though.”

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