Tablets Struggle for Position

With response to the Tablet PC still cool, plans for the future of the platform are in flux.

When Microsoft Corp. launched Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, Microsoft Chief Software Architect Bill Gates declared the platform would change computing forever.

Gates may be proved correct eventually, but, two years later, Tablet PC sales remain disappointing, and tests of the forthcoming operating system update by eWEEK Labs dont indicate that horizontal usage will increase any time soon.

Although Tablet PC hardware is being deployed in vertical markets, horizontal growth remains sluggish as IT managers struggle to justify the expense of the hardware.

"We had lots of interest in November 2002 [when the Tablet PC operating system was released] and much less interest in November 2003," said Kevin Wilson, product line manager of desktop hardware at Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C., and an eWEEK Corporate Partner. "The Microsoft reference platforms potential lies in the office and home, bringing the tablet form in from the field."

Microsoft hopes the release of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, the first major revision to the operating system, will make the platform appeal to a wider audience.

The update was originally slated for release this month, but Microsoft decided to roll the new operating system into Windows XP Service Pack 2, slated for release this summer.

During eWEEK Labs tests of Release Candidate 1 of Tablet PC Edition 2005, we found that improvements in handwriting recognition make for a much better user experience. The updated operating system also tightens integration with Microsoft Office. These improvements make the operating system more compelling, but whether they will convert Tablet PC skeptics—especially in the enterprise— remains to be seen.

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick here to read the review of Windows XP Tablet Edition 2005.

Microsoft itself seems to be wavering in its stance on the Tablet PC platform. At WinHEC in Seattle this month, Microsoft executives said they had not decided how the Tablet PC fits into plans for the companys next-generation "Longhorn" operating system. Up in the air is whether Tablet PC functionality will be subsumed into standard notebook PCs.

/zimages/7/28571.gifFor more information on Longhorn, see Jason Brooks analysis of the latest build.

During an interview with eWEEK Labs, Microsoft officials said they will continue to work on the Tablet PC operating system. "We are actively working on the next generation of the Tablet PC operating system functionality for Windows Longhorn," said Peter Loforte, general manager of the Tablet PC Division at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash. "The focus of our efforts is on a set of core mobility and rich Tablet functions for a broad range of mobile PC hardware that includes slate and convertible Tablet PCs."

Adding electronic ink capabilities into the core Windows operating system is something that makes sense to eWEEK Labs and that IT managers we interviewed said they would welcome. "Higher-end laptops and ultralights will evolve to include hybrid Tablet PC functions," said Duke Energys Wilson. "At that point, the Tablet feature becomes just another technology that rides the techno-curve into each vendors corporate laptop product line."

One factor that may have Microsoft considering such a move is disappointing sales. Research company IDC estimates that fewer than 500,000 Tablet PCs were sold worldwide last year. IDC expects slightly more than 1 million units to be sold this year (see graphic), with sales picking up next year. "We do not expect significant horizontal-market adoption until the 2005-to-2006 time frame, when Tablet functionality is extended across a broad range of portable PC form factors and the cost of this technology has further decreased," said IDC analyst Alan Promisel in Boston.

Cost is one factor that has precluded Tablet PC deployments at many corporations. IT managers eWEEK Labs spoke with said they liked the idea of providing handwriting-recognition capabilities to users but the price difference between a standard notebook and a Tablet PC was too great to justify the purchase of pen-enabled devices. For example, a Gateway Inc. T275 convertible Tablet PC—one of the lowest-priced Tablets—starts at $1,799, while a Dell Inc. Inspiron 5100 notebook can be purchased for $1,099.

The Tablet PC has had some measure of success in vertical markets such as health care and manufacturing, where the platforms data capture capabilities can significantly increase productivity.

/zimages/7/28571.gifInspection Solution of Nashville, Tenn., saw productivity double after arming mobile workers with Tablet PCs. Click here to read the eWEEK Labs case study.

IT managers in academic institutions are also bullish on the platform. Bruce Brorson, an associate professor and director of the IT management degree program at the Center for Business and Technology at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, has begun a Tablet PC pilot program with faculty members and expects to roll out convertible Tablet PCs more widely next year.

"I am absolutely convinced that the Tablet PC will change the experience within the classroom," said Brorson, an eWEEK Corporate Partner. "It enables the physical connection of concepts in a manner in which we could only do with paper [in the past]."

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