Reports of Tablet PCs Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

By Rob Enderle  |  Posted 2004-05-25

Reports of Tablet PCs Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Disclaimer: Microsoft and HP are clients of the Enderle Group.

A few years ago I read an obituary for Bob Hope that was picked up by my local paper. Hope had become one of my favorite celebrities over the years and I was saddened by his passing. The only problem was he hadnt actually died.

I had a similar experience recently as I read a number of articles and columns about the death of the Tablet PC that pointed to a presentation by a Microsoft executive as a clear indicator of the platforms demise. These articles pointed out that while the vertical products have been successful, the horizontal offerings have not done well, and they focused on the failure of these horizontal, clamshell designs as the cause for Microsofts action.

Click here to read eWEEK Labs analysis of the Tablet PCs struggles.

Since I was one of a number of analysts and large customers who urged Microsoft to consider the change that prompted the presentation and the premature pronouncements of death for the platform, I think we should take a hard look at what Microsoft is actually doing and why.

As many articles have pointed out, the Tablet PC has proven quite popular in vertical markets. In its slate form factor it is ideal for filling out forms and so plays strongly where forms are commonly used. However, the touch screen interface added cost and weight compared with a standard laptop computer and there werent many common applications that were ideal for this new interface method, making it a difficult concept to sell outside of those vertical markets.

Handheld computers have defaulted to touch screens and recently began adding keyboards. But this form factor is stalling as well, further supporting the belief that the general market is resisting this method of user interface.

The most popular general market design for tablet computers is the clamshell style. These tablets look like regular laptop computers, but they can be transformed into slates by rotating the screen 180 degrees and snapping it over the keyboard. As I pointed out in my column comparing the Toshiba Tablet PC to the HP Tablet PC, the problem with this approach is that users simply use the tablet as a regular laptop. And that makes for an expensive laptop.

There was one more serious problem: Corporate buyers didnt like that the Tablet PC used a unique version of Windows.

Next page: The IT barrier to entry.

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In general, IT buyers try to keep the number of images they need to manage to a minimum. This drive is so powerful that some will put old, out-of-date operating systems on new hardware just so they dont have to deal with the differences between two versions of the same operating system. While this may result in reliability problems, security problems and the inability to use some of the features available on the newer hardware, they believe that the cost of multiple images exceeds the benefits of matching an operating system to the hardware it was designed for.

This belief is based on a series of experiences going back to the early days of the PC, when compatibility problems between versions of Windows and patches could, and often did, crash large numbers of PCs when patches were applied or new applications installed and made recovery both difficult and expensive.

While the introduction of Windows 2000 eliminated most of these problems, corporate buyers continue to be wary of the introduction of yet another version of Windows.

Feedback from large customers and the analysts, like me, who supported them, was clear. To even get tablets into trials, Microsoft needed to produce a common OS so that corporate IT departments could maintain one image that could be applied to all mobile hardware, including tablets. Ideally, IT administrators want one image for both laptops and desktop computers, and few can supply this today.

Microsoft listened and is now considering merging some of the Tablet PCs unique interfaces and features into Longhorn so this barrier to adoption is removed. In other words, they are looking for ways not to kill the Tablet PC but to help make it successful.

Click here to read eWEEK Labs review of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005.

Introducing a new user interface is anything but easy. Apple pioneered the mouse after Xerox determined that no one would use it and even they havent moved away from the single-button version. We had a run at speech several years ago that stalled when Lernout & Hauspie, who had attempted to buy up all of the speech-to-text products, went bankrupt. Tablets arent the first platform to use a pen interface. Besides handheld computers, devices such as the WinPad, which Fujitsu was driving largely in the health care market, predated the Tablet PC.

IBM actually saw the potential new audience for the tablet some time ago and launched the TransNote to address it: It floundered in the marketplace. This just goes to show that it often takes a number of attempts before the right match of hardware and software is created for a new market opportunity.

This is because the needs of the potential customer are much harder to define for "new" products. They often behave differently then they say they will in focus groups and surveys when they actually are spending their own money and are faced with purchase decisions that generally dont exist during the time when the studies are performed. Thats one reason why a lot of first-generation products simply dont make the grade.

Next page: Looking to the future.

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The general audience for the Tablet PC—knowledge workers who were taking portfolios rather than laptops to meetings—is real, but that audience is also adverse to change, which is why they are taking portfolios to those meetings in the first place.

Inspection Solution, a Nashville, Tenn., company, saw productivity increase after it equipped its mobile workers with Tablet PCs. Click here to read the case study.

Microsoft continues to fund the Tablet PC effort at a high level, and like any large initiative from a complex company that is focused elsewhere at the moment (security is driving the company), it has some problems. Microsoft Watch Editor Mary Jo Foley points a number of them out in her recent article, "Trouble in Tablet Land."

One point she makes is that Lonestar, the new release of the Tablet PC Edition, will miss the back-to-school season. Right now there are few Tablet PCs priced in the sub-$1,500 range required by the education market anyway, and thats likely the bigger problem. This is changing, but the applications that will pull tablets into education, for the most part, have yet to be written.

What caused Microsoft to miss the back-to-school window was the linkage between the Tablet PC Edition and Windows XP Service Pack 2. This service patch is the biggest security improvement in Windows ever and it forced Microsoft to make a choice on the Tablet PC platform. As for the applications that will propel tablets into the education market, I am helping to judge a contest (along with several editors from eWEEK, PC Magazine and ExtremeTech) to drive additional application support to this platform. Microsoft, HP, and PC Magazine are sponsoring the contest, which offers a $100,000 prize—that should get a few folks thinking creatively.

One contest clearly wont be enough. Before this technology goes mainstream, we will need to see more lower-cost notebooks that use touch screens, we will need desktop monitors (or some other interface) that will support Ink, and we will need to see a continued ramp-up of Ink-enabled applications. None of this can happen unless the bits that make up the Tablet PC edition land in the base Windows platform.

In the end, Microsofts move to merge the Tablet PC platform into Longhorn does not represent the death of the Tablet PC, but its continued (painful) birth.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.

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