Is tablet too hard to swallow?

Dell is the last major vendor to launch tablet PCs, but the form factor may be a bitter pill to swallow, says Mark Sutton

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By  Mark Sutton Published  December 12, 2007

Dell has finally swallowed the medicine and launched a tablet PC, the Latitude XT. Dell had long resisted entry into the tablet market, but with this launch, all of the major PC vendors now have offerings - but will the Dell move finally see an upswing in tablet takeup?

The tablet PC market is still very much a niche proposition, accounting for low single-digit percentages of the overall notebook market at best. As a form factor, it has attracted a fair bit of attention, but its never really been matched by sales, and the resistance of some vendors to enter the sector was seen as an indicator that it was destined to remain a niche.

Now however, the Dell launch seems to have some analysts predicting that tablet may be ready for take off. Dell is often regarded as a yardstick for computing, particularly in the US, where its mass market dominance and somewhat conservative approach to new technologies tend to give the impression that when Dell does something, then its mainstream, and not beforehand (in the same way that no-one ever got fired for buying IBM).

But I'm not so sure that the tablet is ever going to take off.

To declare an interest, I've been a tablet PC user for about three years. I love the idea of what tablet PC could offer - a quicker and more efficient way of managing meeting notes and calendar, but in practice, I'm a convertible tablet PC user who rarely bothers with the tablet.

There are a few problems I have with tablet. First up, battery life and weight - even though the model I have was pretty advanced three years ago, it was still just a bit too heavy to carry around all day, not that the battery would ever last all day. I'm sure that these issues have been overcome by now, but the form factor hasn't gotten radically lighter in that time, and I'm always skeptical of manufacturer's claims of battery life.

A more significant problem was handwriting recognition. While a tablet is a very useful substitute for pen and paper, I still faced the problem of deciphering what I had written on the tablet, and I suspect there's not an algorithm written yet that could solve that problem. For future generations raised on TXT input, this may not be as much of a problem, but at the same time, they also won't have the same affinity for stylus/pen input.

Poor handwriting or poor handwriting recognition also had a knock-on effect on the overall effectiveness of the software, which highlighted a further problem - software. For a start, most tablet users really need Microsoft OneNote, which doesn't always ship as standard, but is vital to give full synchronization with Outlook and so on. More importantly, you also have to really learn how to use the functions, without getting distracted by them, to get the most from a tablet, otherwise it becomes less useful than pen and paper.

Of course, tablet has a lot more potential when running bespoke applications, where the interface can be tailored for stylus input on the move, but even then, there is still the factor of cost.

A few years ago a major Middle Eastern airline showed me a pilot of a tablet-based application, to make passenger information available to cabin crew while in-flight. It was an excellent application that would have made a big difference to customer service, but at the time, the pilot wasn't going to be taken up as it was too expensive (I think the airline had spent all its money sponsoring football teams).

And tablet PCs are expensive - often twice as much or more when compared to similarly specced notebook. If a cash-rich airline decided against tablet, then how are healthcare and education, two sectors that are often held up as being perfect for tablet deployments, supposed to afford the hardware?

Tablet PCs are fighting for share in a market that is already saturated with solutions that put data and applications where they are needed - either mobile solutions such as PDAs, smartphones or ultramobile computers like the Sony Vaio UX, or fixed solutions like IP phones with touchscreen interfaces - improvements to screen resolutions, connectivity and cost have opened up data mobility, which makes it increasingly hard to see the value proposition of tablet PCs. Probably some clever company like Apple could create a definitive interface for a truly mobile PC, and there may be some potential in Dell's multi-touch input, but as a form factor, tablet is increasingly looking like an overpowered and unwieldy attempt to find a use for stylus technology, rather than a really useful mobile tool.

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