After a year, tablet still niche

A year after its introduction, Microsoft's Tablet PC technology remains a niche product, according to analysts and hardware vendors. But the company hopes user adoption rates will rise when an upgrade of the pen-based operating system hits the market.

The updated software, formally known as Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004, is due to ship by the end of June. Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, said in his Comdex/Fall 2003 keynote speech that the upgrade should make it easier for developers to add so-called digital ink capabilities to new and existing applications.

Some corporate users are already making big investments in tablet devices. For example, HealthSouth, a US provider of outpatient surgery and other health care services, this month said it had ordered 5,000 tablet PCs equipped with wireless LAN connections from Motion Computing.

HealthSouth CIO Randy Carpenter last week said the tablet devices will be used by physical therapists at the company's 1,400 physical rehabilitation centers. The application software running on the systems will give therapists access to patient records and let them document clinical progress, Carpenter said, adding that the wireless links will enable the therapists to be "completely mobile and at the patient's side."

However, tablet PC sales aren't a big business yet. First-year shipments of tablet hardware totaled about 420,000 units, according to market research firm IDC. That's just a blip compared with sales of handheld computers, which amount to more on a monthly basis than the yearly figure for tablet PCs, said IDC analyst Alex Slawsby.

Scott Eckert, CEO of Motion Computing, said that persuading IT managers to buy a relatively unproven technology such as tablet PCs requires a lot of time and effort by hardware vendors. Sales prospects are spending up to six months evaluating the devices, Eckert said.

Another factor working against tablet PCs is a price premium of about $150 over notebook PCs, said Sam Bhavnani, an analyst at ARS. That quickly adds up to "real money" for companies that want to buy thousands of devices, he noted.

Microsoft officials remain confident that tablet PCs will become mass-market products, said Susan Cameron, the company's group product manager for the technology.

The operating system upgrade will make it easier for users to input text and annotate PowerPoint slides, she said. It will also provide "context sensitivity" capabilities for translating written words into data. Cameron added that Microsoft expects future notebook PCs to include built-in tablet functionality.

A Big Hit

Jeffrey Hodes, co-executive producer of the ABC television network's According to Jim sitcom, said the show's writers use tablet PCs made by Motion Computing to digitally annotate scripts during daily rehearsals and tapings. The annotations are transmitted to all 14 writers via a WLAN, said Hodes, who also is one of the writers.

The technology streamlines the process of producing each day's final script and has helped reduce the use of paper by the show, which previously consumed about 180,000 pages per year, Hodes said.

John Harrington, director of integrated manufacturing systems at General Dynamics' Electric Boat division, said the maker of nuclear-powered submarines has deployed tablet PCs made by Fujitsu to make it easier for its design engineers to modify computer-aided design drawings during the construction process.

Engineers use a WLAN to pull CAD drawings to the tablet devices, Harrington said. They can then compare the drawings against the construction work in progress, annotate any changes in a text format and send the drawing files back to Electric Boat's CAD system -- a time-saving process that wasn't possible before the advent of tablet PCs, according to Harrington.

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