Tablet PC maker Motion Computing is maintaining its maniacal focus on vertical markets. But the tablet market continues to present a rocky road for the Austin, Texas, startup and its competitors.
Motion Computing Inc., which this week rolled out its latest tablet, the 3.1-pound LE1600 tablet, continues to focus on health care, field force automation, government and education, versus targeting consumers or meeting-hopping corporate workers.
Although anyone can purchase an LE1600 slate-style tablets via its Web site, Motion has sought out relationships with software developers and resellers so as to target health care and other verticals, where specialized applications running on its hardware can replace the pen and paper and thus increase its sales.
Motion executives argue that verticals are where Windows XP-based tablets, which have struggled since appearing in 2002, can shine over traditional notebook PCs.
"Vertical markets are growing at a sustained rate," said Bert Haskell, senior product marketing manager. "Right now, health care is the biggest market for us and tablets in general."
The company now has about 220 ISV and about 700 VAR partners that build on or sell its tablets—some companies do both.
Many of its customers are moving straight from paper to tablets, where they can fill out digital forms or take notes, he said.
When it comes to its latest tablet, the company made a number of changes it hopes will boost its appeal with doctors, salespeople and others who spend time on their feet in the field.
The LE1600 touts lighter weight and greater performance thanks to using Intels latest low-voltage Pentium M 758 processor, which runs at 1.5GHz.
It also offers greater security by incorporating Infineons TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip for hardware-based authentication. The machine starts at $1,899, when fitted with a low voltage Intel Celeron M model 373 processor running at 1GHz, or $2,199 with the Pentium M 758 chip.
Still, the tablet market will continue to be a difficult one going forward, analysts predict.
Tablet makers shipped about 630,000 units in 2004 and are expected to ship about 1.18 million units this year, according to IDCs forecast.
The resulting year-to-year increase shows a healthy growth rate, but the total number of tablet shipments pales compared with overall notebook shipments, which number tens of millions of units, worldwide.
Roger Kay, analyst with IDC, suggests the market is essentially waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"The reality is that the hardware has come down a little [in price], but it hasnt come down far enough," Kay said. Thus, "the need for it is still hard to justify (for the price). Theres no killer application that says, Youve gotta have a tablet. Thats been the inhibitor."
Several other PC makers, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and Fujitsu, offer slate-style tablets and also seek out customers in vertical markets.
But Kay praised Motion Computings strategy of working with ISVs.
"Theyve gone after the vertical slate thing with a vengeance, and their secret sauce is they work with ISVs that specialize in particular verticals," Kay said. "The other guys, I think theyre treading water until something happens."
That "something" thats needed to get the market moving, Kay suggests, will be lower prices.
"I dont think the answer is features and functions. The answer is price," he said.
There could be other bumps along the way for tablet makers.
Although it predicts higher tablet unit shipments for the 2006 to 2008 time frame, IDCs forecast still shows a widening gap between sales of so-called convertibles, which look more notebook-like and whose screens are able to rotate 180 degrees and fold down to create a writing surface, and slates, which have no keyboard directly attached.
Where the ratio was close to 1-to-1 in 2004, due to slates popularity in vertical markets, IDC predicts the ratio will shift to roughly about 5 convertibles for every slate in 2008, when unit shipments are expected to be between 9 million and 10 million units, the companys forecast shows.
Unlike Motion Computing, many other tablet players, including Acer Inc., Gateway Inc. and Toshiba Corp., have focused on convertibles.
HP and Fujitsu offer both types of machines.
Gateway, for one, plans to roll out a new version of its convertible tablet next quarter.
The company, which has focused much of its tablet efforts on the education space, also resells Motion Computing slates, including the EL1600, Haskell said.
But even slate-only Motion is taking action.
The companys EL1600 can be purchased with a mobile keyboard mini-dock, which connects directly to the tablet and serves as its stand.
It also offers a FlexDock LE, which servers as a docking station and stand for using the tablet as a desktop. Both docks cost less than $300.
It also sells several travel cases. All of the devices allow it to easily connect it to a keyboard.
Haskell refused to comment on whether Motion was planning to offer other types of tablets, such as a convertible, or possibly a lower-cost slate.