Hard to Swallow?

Vendors are pushing Tablet PC as a bold new move towards pervasive computing. But will the new form factors really make an impact on the market, or is it just an attempt to cash in on the growth of mobile computing?

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By  Mark Sutton Published  December 11, 2002

The new technology|~||~||~|It has been described as potentially the biggest growing PC segment of the next few years, with some analysts predicting that tablet will cannibalise a major slice of the notebook market, and drastically change our definitions, and our usage of mobile computers. But while the concept of the tablet has attracted a huge amount of interest, there are still quite a few people asking whether the form factor can live up to the hype—after all, with mobile being just about the only PC segment that is showing any real growth and momentum, is it that surprising that the manufacturers are looking to push a new, high-end, big ticket mobile device to corporate users? Can manufacturers really deliver the functionality to realise the vision, or is tablet PC just a gimmick designed to drive hardware and software sales?

The tablet concept has certainly found plenty of support among the vendors. By the end of November, Acer, Fujitsu Siemens, HP and Toshiba had all weighed in with Middle East launches of tablets, and there are several more to follow. But the latest generation of tablets are not the first—in fact, for several vendors, the slate segment is an area that they have been active in for some time. Fujitsu Siemens’ tablet launch is actually its eighteenth generation of ‘tablet’ PCs. HP’s tablet is a pre-merger Compaq design, that also comes from a previous line of similar devices. So why all the fuss now?

The answer, in part, is a simple one—it’s Microsoft. Almost all of the new devices are packing the latest version of Windows XP Professional—Tablet Edition. Again, Microsoft is no stranger to the mobile form factor, indeed its Windows CE is still in use in several tablet-style devices, including those made by Hitachi. However, the new edition is being pushed by Redmond in a big way, and when Microsoft gets behind an idea, you can be sure that the OEMs will take notice.

Windows XP Tablet Edition has a number of new features that make it worth looking into however. Essentially it is Windows XP with a superset of features on top, but it is these features, coupled with the form factor, that are behind the promise of the new model. The software enables hand writing recognition for converting hand written data into text format, and also allows more advanced handling of data through a simple ‘pen & paper’ style of input. By coupling these productivity features and a complete PC operating system, rather than a scaled down version, with a form factor that allows the user to carry the tablet around like a PDA, the idea is of making applications that are truly mobile.

“This is an important evolution in the history of computing, as it delivers a level of freedom never before offered to PC users,” said Abdullatif Almulla, general manager of Microsoft South Gulf. “We think that over the next two years, we will see hundreds of different types of users who will switch to the Tablet PC form factor, such as students, reporters, doctors and any type of mobile information workers.”

The OEMs are certainly promoting many different corporate deployments for the tablet, especially in niche areas such as healthcare, finance, education, logistics and sales. There is even a new term for corporate tablet users—the corridor warrior.

“Corridor warriors are corporate users who travel a lot within their corporate building—they would like to be connected to the data that they normally have at their desk, so it is a suitable device for them,” explained Ferruh Gurtas, business development manager of Intel MENA. “Vertical segments are where tablet PC can really bring benefits. Medical, like doctors making rounds, manufacturing, warehouses. The education [sector] is key of course—mobile is OK, but a tablet PC is better in terms of usage. You don’t need to set up labs anymore, you just carry the tablet into any classroom, and at the same time you are giving the student an input device that he is used to—a pen.”

||**||Corridor Warriors?|~||~||~|Andrew Brown, research manager, mobile computing for IDC EMEA, is less convinced of the ability of tablet PC to tap so many vertical segments. So far, there is interest from a number of sectors in the tablet PC in the Middle East, especially from verticals. Acer has a pilot deployment with the UAE Higher Colleges of Technology, although education may not be a big market, Brown says.

“I think, initially, that for a lot of educational establishments it is going to be too expensive to roll these things out wholesale,” he said. “For a long time, healthcare has required some sort of tablet or handwriting recognition application, there are a number of software applications that have already been developed for healthcare, so that has a better chance of going straight to market.”

The healthcare industry has an immediate need for portability of data, and has also put aside budget for IT, which makes it more likely to be a success, Brown believes, but although the same demands are present in the logistics industry, but he does not expect tablet to do very much there. “Interestingly, this [slate] form factor has done nothing in the vertical space, largely in areas like logistics, it has been keypad-based and handhelds, largely Symbol devices designed for a specific task. Why go and buy a tablet PC that costs a lot, when [logistics companies] have already spent on rolling out infrastructure for Symbol?”

Brown expects to see the most immediate uptake of tablet PC in areas such as finance and sales—initially it is going to be very much a high end product. Partly this is due to cost. With most tablets costing over $2,000, wide-scale deployment by corporate customers is not going to come anytime soon, so it is going to be executives and high end sales people that will be making buying decisions. For these types of people, the form factor also has an important part to play in the functionality of the tablet PC, aside from just the ‘must-have’ factor.

“We are talking predominantly about sales—anyone who goes out to meet clients, in verticals like finance, or is very client related—predominantly top sales people, executives, customer facing environments, [holding] specific one-to-ones with clients, because it removes the barrier between people—it is more like having a notepad than having a PC, which creates a barrier between two people,” Brown said.

It is not just the leaders in the notebook market that are looking at the sector either. ViewSonic, more commonly associated with displays, will be launching its V1100 tablet PC in December. Ian Gobey, sales director, Viewsonic MEA, says the company is bullish about the tablet sector. “Our goal is to be a key player in this segment. It is a part of our strategy to deploy technologies that are display centric in nature. There is a notable change from the time where the display was just a data output device, it is now also a data input device. A few may be surprised that we have been awarded OEM partner of the year for Windows CE, and that we have our own in-house software development operation. Viewsonic is also a lead development partner with Microsoft on the MIRA programme. We do not intend to be a fringe player in this business.”

||**||Which form factors?|~||~||~|There are certainly plenty of options for executives that want a tablet PC. The manufacturers have split so far into two broad camps—the slate and the convertible form factor. While both have the same core technology—an active screen for pen-based input—the two forms are going down different routes. Firstly, there is the slate form, which has been chosen by Fujitsu Siemens for its Stylistic ST series. Essentially this takes the simple approach of simple flat box with the screen built in to the top, that looks like a monitor without a stand. The device houses a hard drive and a battery, and has ports for a few connectivity options. The slate can also be plugged into a docking station, with more ports and additional drive options, which will allow it to be used as a desktop replacement.

The second form factor is the convertible. This has a tablet screen, but also has a keyboard attached. The keyboard is hinged, so that the device can be used like a standard clamshell notebook, or with the screen twisted around on to the top of the device, so that is resembles a slightly fatter slate style. Both Toshiba’s Portege 3500 and Acer’s TravelMate C100 go for this approach. HP goes one step further with its Compaq Tablet PC TC1000, and provides a convertible form factor, which has both a docking station and a detachable keyboard.

There are inherent strengths and weaknesses to both options. Suzanne Lewitzki, mobility product marketing manager for Fujitsu Siemens explained why they have gone for a slate-approach: “We have two specific reasons. We think that the user will be using this type of product while they are walking around, so in that case, ergonomics says we need to make as small and lightweight form factor as possible,” she said. “Secondly, the advantage of a slate product is that is doesn’t have any hinges or any mechanical parts, so when you are out in the field, you are not afraid of losing or breaking any parts.”

Acer’s convertible is intended provide the best of both worlds, according to Krishna Murthy, general manager of Acer Computer ME. “The TravelMate fits into a segment that Microsoft refers to as a clamshell design. This is in contrast to many ‘pure’ tablets, which are not convertible, and are limited to voice-based and pen-based operations,” he said. “Instead, the TravelMate bridges the functionality gap, linking the portability and intuitiveness of a tablet with the broader connectivity and flexibility of a notebook.”

Brown believes that initially the convertible designs will be an easier sell, especially for corporates, as it has the familiarity angle, and will not be seen as a risky investment, but both forms have to prove themselves. “It is going to be tough to get IT managers to adopt these products,” he said. “Initially they are going to have a lot mechanical issues, there will be questions over robustness.”

A major sticking point for tablet is cost. None of the devices mentioned here cost less than $2,000 (in the Middle East at least), with some, such as the Fujitsu Siemens, positioned nearer to $3,000. This cost is partly due to the need for the tablet PCs to use true mobile components—problems of size, weight, and heat output mean that they have to use expensive mobile drives, chips and other parts. Ruggedising the devices is also expensive—Fujitsu Siemens has knock-proofed hard drives and a magnesium shell, none of which come cheaply. The mobile processors that are used also push up the cost, and as all of these factors are not likely to change, the price is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“A lot of the cost isn’t just components,” said Brown. “Obviously you have ultra-mobile components in there, that is driving up the cost, whereas you can cut corners with notebooks, but you have also got to incorporate all those parts into a very small form factor. You can’t get around that particularly easily in the short term, I am sure there will be a feasible way to reduce the price, but you have a lot less real estate in the box to play with.”

Another hardware consideration for tablet PC is battery power. With the usage model of tablet PCs requiring extended periods of use throughout the day, the battery life is going to be key. The technologies on the CPUs involved provide some potential to extend battery life, but even then, the longest battery life any of the tablet PCs have is five hours.

||**||Not just about hardware|~||~||~|As important as hardware will be software. There are some companies that are looking at producing tablet enabled applications—Autodesk for example is looking into producing a design studio application for tablet, and there are also some vertical applications available, but there will need to be strong backing from a range of enterprise applications vendors to make the sector truly attractive to corporates.

Even more important than the applications is the interface itself, says Brown. “Software and applications support is going to play a key role, but what is going to be the most important thing of all is whether these [applications] are really going to be intuitive. It is a bold move towards pervasive computing, but I think that people will still be disappointed with the hand writing recognition, the journal and jotting capabilities. It is all very well having a concept, but people are still more comfortable with pen and paper than writing on a PC,” he said.

For the Middle East, there is another stumbling block in that there is no Arabic version of Windows Tablet Edition. Mazen Shehadeh, product marketing manager, Microsoft South Gulf points out that the OS is Arabic enabled, but Arabic hand writing recognition will still be another twelve months in development.

So what are the channel opportunities for tablet PCs? For a start, none of the manufacturers is claiming that they are targeting the mass market. Brown points out that the fact that Dell has not released a tablet PC suggest to him that the sector is a long way from the mass market.

ViewSonic will be training its existing channels in how to position tablet against other mobile solutions, but it will also be looking for resellers with direct access into vertical markets. Christoph Schell, general manager of HP’s PSG group says that although the device will be available to all of its channel partners, they don’t expect it to be a retail sell yet. “It will not be positioned for consumer and retail, it is really for corporate usage. I believe that the biggest chunk of tablet PC will be tender business. We are looking at converting notebook tenders to this product,” Schell explained.

Long term, it is harder to tell which way the tablet sector may go. IDC predicts a 65% CAGR until 2007 for the sector in Europe, but Brown is still conservative about the capability of tablet PC to make a dent in the notebook market. Others expect notebook users to transition to tablet as the benefits become clearer. “There is a lot of functionality in the tablet, which will bring it more and more into the mainstream” said Dirk de Waegeneire, vice president International Sales, Fujitsu Siemens Computers. “This is going to be a key factor. People that migrated from desktops to notebooks are now going to migrate from notebooks to tablets, which is why we see this as the biggest growing market in the industry.”||**||

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