Will Tablet PCs Make Inroads at Enterprises?

New Tablet PCs might succeed where their pen-based handheld predecessors failed, thanks to industrial-strength backers and better handwriting recognition.

Remember Apple Computer Inc.s Newton? How about IBMs TransNote? They were both pen-based handheld devices that were supposed to revolutionize the world of computing and reduce the number of hardware devices wage slaves had to carry around to do their jobs. For a variety of reasons—not the least of which was poor handwriting recognition—the revolution fizzled.

Now comes the Tablet PC, and, this time, things actually may turn out differently.

Thats because industry giant Microsoft Corp. and some of the largest hardware manufacturers are behind the idea. Thats created a stir not only among power-using executives in search of the latest personal productivity gizmos but also among enterprises interested in using the Tablets small form factor and Microsofts Digital Ink handwriting input and recognition technology for a variety of warehouse, retail and other vertical applications that require convenient data capture and forms-based applications.

As more packaged applications—particularly non-Microsoft titles and sales force automation, inventory and other vertical applications—are ported to the Windows XP Tablet Edition operating system, experts say they expect the form factor to gain traction among "corridor workers," the term Microsoft has given to employees who are extremely mobile. In fact, experts at Dataquest Inc., a division of Gartner Inc., in San Jose, Calif., said they expect Tablet sales to jump to at least 35 percent of the total notebook market by 2007.

Just how quickly enterprise Tablet PC deployments will take off, however, remains to be seen. A lack of application support, clumsy hardware design and a high price point will be barriers for most IT managers at least until 2004, experts say. In fact, Tablet PC sales are expected to be disappointing for the next six to nine months, with Tablets accounting for less than 2 percent of the overall notebook market and fewer than 600,000 units next year, according to International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass.

As our Tablet PC evaluation makes clear, many enterprises interested in the Tablet will bypass the first round of Tablet PC products unless they have a project that would greatly benefit from features such as the Tablets small form factor and handwriting recognition. Enterprises that are drawn to the Tablet for specific, vertical applications, experts say, should partner with their software vendors to get the applications they need ported to the Tablet. Lastly, for enterprises hoping to use the Tablet for office productivity purposes, experts recommend piloting Tablets that can be converted between laptop and slate modes. Thats because units that come with a keyboard give users who are uncomfortable with the pen format time to adjust.

However, organizations that do a fair amount of paper-based data collection may find the Tablet exactly what theyre looking for. At 7-Eleven Inc., in Dallas, Kathy Walsh, director of emerging technologies, is testing 27 TravelMate C120T units from Acer Inc., of Taipei, Taiwan. Members of the companys maintenance crews are trying out the units for data collection purposes.