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.
7-Eleven, a $31 billion Dallas-based company, is the worlds largest operator, franchiser and licenser of convenience stores. The company is in the middle of surveying 5,700 of its stores to capture floor plans and to inventory store equipment. When 7-Eleven began this project, maintenance crews used pen and paper to record equipment serial numbers and the answers to the 1,200 questions in the survey. The job could take a maintenance worker as much as 12 hours per store.
In an effort to make data collection quicker and less expensive, 7-Eleven last year tried using radio headsets that allowed workers to radio the information to a colleague in a truck outside each store. Earlier this year, the company switched to a laptop-based solution, having workers fill in forms electronically. But, since maintenance workers are required to climb into small spaces to record serial numbers of gas pumps, heaters and air conditioning units, Walsh said data collection was difficult even with the laptop because a flat surface was required for workers to input data.
So Walshs team decided to try giving maintenance workers the Acer Tablets. Using Microsofts .Net Framework Software Development Kit, 7-Eleven developed an application with the help of Microsoft that ports its survey to the Tablet PC. The Acer unit is a convertible Tablet, and workers are able to rotate the screen and carry the hardware like a clipboard when filling out each survey using Ink. Afterward, the Tablets are docked to transmit information over the corporate network to a Microsoft SQL Server database. The Acer unit does not have a docking solution yet, so 7-Eleven is using a port replicator from Mobility Electronics Inc., in Scottsdale, Ariz.
So far, the effort has been worthwhile. Switching to Tablet-based data collection allowed 7-Eleven to reduce survey work time by 50 to 75 percent, Walsh said. Although the company has yet to commit to a full rollout of the Tablets, she said, given the time savings demonstrated so far, use of the Tablet would save the company an estimated $3 million to $5 million annually.
While many enterprises are interested in Tablets mainly for vertical applications such as warehousing and merchandising, some are also eyeing the Tablet PC as a laptop replacement for increasingly mobile workers.
At Best Buy Co. Inc., in Eden Prairie Minn., Dave Severson, product and capability manager, is conducting a Tablet PC pilot test with 17 corridor workers at the electronics retailers corporate headquarters. The idea is to see if the productivity of these workers could be improved using Tablet PCs.
Best Buy employees are testing Acers TravelMate 100 Tablet. Severson said using a convertible Tablet was key because few employees are ready to give up keyboards.
To further test the capabilities of the Tablet, Severson worked with Best Buy security managers to deploy a WLAN (wireless LAN) based on the 802.11b standard, or Wi-Fi. Severson said the productivity increases that Tablet testers saw when using the WLAN drove the corporation to budget for WLAN capabilities at the companys new corporate campus being built in Richfield, Minn.
However, although the Tablet pilot has been successful thus far, Severson said he has no plans to purchase units for Best Buy until he completes a case study and business model to determine the potential return on investment for his organization.
“I do think some very positive things could happen if the price of Tablets eventually becomes very close to the price of notebooks,” Severson said.
Best Buy isnt the only enterprise concerned about the Tablets price point, which averages about $2,200 per unit. Experts, who estimate vendors are paying $100 to $200 more to produce Tablet PCs than they spend to manufacture traditional notebooks, say this price premium will slow initial adoption. In fact, for enterprises, the final price differential between Tablet PCs and notebooks could range from $200 to $400 per unit, according to Dataquest.
While IT managers said they are willing to pay more for ease of use and mobility, they are not willing to accept less processing power and a smaller screen size. Tablet PCs have smaller screens and use processors that are not on par with those of standard notebooks.
Even IT managers excited about the potential of the Tablet say they will wait and watch the prices. At Aventis Pharmaceuticals Inc., Perry Rosenrot, senior director and global head of business applications and services for information services in the companys Drug Innovation and Approval group, deployed the Fujitsu Stylistic Series 4000 from Fujitsu PC Corp. in an effort to automate paper-based data collection during clinical drug trials and laboratory research.
While the Tablet has the potential to save 2 hours a day per researcher in time now spent re-keying drug trial data, Rosenrot said he will need to do more analysis to determine how much of a trade-off hes willing to make between price and functionality.
“The Tablet certainly has more functionality than a laptop, but I need to figure out how much the market will bear in terms of incremental price,” said Rosenrot, in Bridgewater, N.J.
Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at email@example.com.