Gaps Delay Sweet Smile of Success

Bill Gates' pet project is missing two key players: IBM and Dell.

Licensees for Microsoft Corp.s Tablet PC operating system are at eighteen and counting, but notably missing are two of the giants in the industry—IBM and Dell Computer Corp.

While they are loyal Microsoft customers for desktop and notebook systems, both companies said they have no immediate plans for the Tablet, in spite of its status as the pet project of Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates.

"The Tablets been a dream that I and many other people have had for years," Gates said last month when he introduced the operating system, which combines pen-based computing with the Windows XP desktop operating system.

"Build em," he told the hardware executives who shared the stage with him when he launched the operating system in New York. "Im quite sure were going to have short supply as the word gets out."

Tablet PC licensees include Acer Inc., Motion Computing Inc., NEC Corp., Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., Fujitsu PC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and ViewSonic Corp. In addition, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. announced plans to build a Tablet PC under its popular Panasonic brand, and Samsung Electronics Co. announced intentions to build a Tablet PC as well. Its a big-enough group that the absence of IBM and Dell is notable.

Dell is taking a wait-and-see approach, while IBM is taking the stance of been there, done that.

"Were not doing a Tablet," said Brian Connors, chief technology officer and vice president of business development and quality for IBMs Personal Systems Group, in Raleigh, N.C.

"Weve been in that space twice before, first in the late 80s and then we tried again with the TransNote."

IBMs first pen-based computers in the 1980s actually preceded its popular ThinkPad line of notebook computers.

The ThinkPad TransNote was launched in February 2001 with much fanfare from IBM, which touted it as "the worlds first portfolio notebook computer." The TransNote opened like a book. Inside on the left side was a computer with a pivoting touch-screen that, like several of the current Tablet PCs, could lie flat or be raised to expose a full-size keyboard. On the right side was a digital notepad. The two sides could be used together or separately.

Connors said IBM discontinued the TransNote in January—less than a year after its launch—because of lack of demand. Stocks of existing units were depleted by the middle of the year. At around $3,000, the TransNote was more expensive than many of the Tablet PCs now on the market, but IBM officials said lack of demand for the TransNote was more about the form factor than the price.

"Its appropriate for vertical markets, but it was too early then, and its still early," Connors said.

Indeed, even corporations that tend to be early adopters reported that with the exception of a handful of field workers, they dont have much need for a Tablet, between the notebook computers and the handheld PDAs (personal digital assistants) they already employ.

"We may have a few of the larger Tablet/ touch-screen PCs in use at our aircraft maintenance and/or package sorting facilities, but the one-handed PDA-class devices will represent the lions share of our portable computing power," said Nathan Lemmon, chief engineer for wireless systems development at FedEx Corp.s Corporate Services, in Memphis, Tenn.

While IBM seems fairly set on never adopting the Tablet PC platform, Dell, which has never pretended to be on the cutting edge of anything except its sales approach, is keeping with its tradition of watching a market for a while before entering. Officials at Dell said the Round Rock, Texas, company is taking the same tack that it did with handheld computers—watching the space for a while before deciding to commit to anything.

Dell only last month launched its first handheld computer, the Axim X5, which is based on Microsofts Pocket PC operating system.

Dell officials said that the company has its hands full with the Axim launch right now but that the company would have waited on the Tablet in any case.

There have been rumors that Dell is getting ready to launch a Tablet, based on the fact it has been discussing the subject with manufacturers such as Wistron Corp., which makes the Axim X5. Officials confirmed such discussions but said they just wanted to keep an eye on the space and investigate. Dell made the rounds with manufacturers when Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., first launched its Pocket PC operating system two years ago, Dell officials said, but didnt launch the Axim until a few weeks ago.

Dell gave similar reasons for waiting as IBM did; officials said they expect the Tablet PC to be popular only with vertical markets for the next couple of years.

For customers that have asked for Tablet PCs, Dell is reselling ViewSonics Tablet PC V1100, a slate-only model with no keyboard.

Furthermore, the Tablet PC operating system is based on Windows XP and is meant to interact with other XP systems, and many corporations have no immediate plans to install XP.

"We still have a lot of customers who are running Windows 95 and 98 and 2000 and even NT," one Dell official said. "We think its going to be a while before XP becomes ubiquitous."