Tablet PCs begin slow rollout

When Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP Tablet Edition officially launches Nov. 7, several notebook computer manufacturers plan to introduce the first Tablet PCs. Early corporate beta testers are giving these devices -- and the technology -- mostly positive reviews.

Users say they like the basic idea behind Tablet PCs: Using the Tablet Edition's Journal applet or other applications, users can write words with an electromagnetic digitizer pen on a specially adapted LCD screen that acts as a writing surface. The system can then either store the note in a format called "digital ink" or convert it into an ASCII text file.

For at least one user, the operating system's ability to convert handwriting to text is superfluous. About 20 attorneys are testing Tablet PCs at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, a 2,400-member law firm in New York. They're using the Tablet Edition's Journal applet principally to annotate Microsoft Word documents with handwritten notations, says CIO James McGinnis.

The lawyers work with the documents and store their changes as digital ink. Support staff members then later transcribe the notes, according to McGinnis. "There's not so much text conversion, since it's valuable to stay with their handwriting," he explains. But "just to be able to do that is huge," he adds.

McGinnis was sufficiently impressed that, as the law firm retires nearly 1,500 laptops, he plans to replace them with Tablet PCs.

Weil, Gotshal & Manges has tested Taipei, Taiwan-based Acer Inc.'s TravelMate 100, a notebook PC that a user can convert to a tablet device by swiveling and folding the display down over the keyboard [QuickLink 31724].

But McGinnis says he's more impressed with native tablet designs such as the 12-in. screen tablet by Motion Computing Inc., an Austin, Texas-based company whose founders include former Dell Computer Corp. executives.

Easy to Use

General Motors Corp. Chief Technology Officer Tony Scott has also tested the Acer machine and another unit from Hewlett-Packard Co. and has used digital ink within Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint files. He says it's "very functional and usable," both for managers inside the firewall and for field service workers.

Scott says the handwriting conversion works well, but he would like to see brighter screens and an increase in battery life from the current three or four hours to at least six. He adds that he's also concerned about the storage requirements for digital ink image files, which need more space than corresponding ASCII text files.

Analysts are voicing other concerns about the product.

For example, Ken Dulaney at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., says that tablet devices will create added costs for corporations that must support the new digital ink images. That, he says, "will limit adoption to a selected few."

Dulaney predicts that only 3 percent of all notebooks purchased by the end of 2004 will be Tablet PC-enabled laptops. He adds that a broader commitment by vendors is necessary to spur adoption, pointing out that both Dell and IBM "now sit on the sidelines."

Tablet PC

What is it? A combination of Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet Edition with portable tablet computing devices that support handwriting input using a stylus and special LCD screen. The designs offer handwriting recognition or can store "digital ink" image bit maps.

What's the benefit? Allows rapid note-taking and document annotation without keyboard input, which means Tablet PCs can be smaller than traditional laptops.

Target Users: Field personnel, such as insurance adjusters, or knowledge workers who find pen input easier than typing.

Caveats: Digital ink files require more storage than ASCII text. Early models have a short battery life, and their screens could be brighter, testers say.

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