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Improved Support for Applications

By David Strom  |  Posted 2008-05-01 Print this article Print

Not just for doctors and cops anymore, the new breed of tablet PCs could be the cure for your company’s mobile computing headaches.

Improved Support for Applications

The second significant change in Tablet PCs comes in the form of improved support for tablet-style applications that can be used by office workers. Microsoft’s Vista now includes tablet support for all its enterprise-level versions—a vast improvement over XP. That’s welcome news for enterprise IT managers loath to deal with the separate code base required for XP’s tablet version.

Vista’s tablet features also offer two important improvements over the XP version: handwriting recognition and pen navigation. The trainable handwriting-recognition engine increases accuracy and reduces usability frustrations. And pen navigation is not limited to a few applications and menu commands—as it is in XP—which could make the pen mightier than the mouse.

In addition to the tablet applications from Microsoft, there are a number of tablet-oriented applications and development tools from tabletanagram.com, abletFactory.com, Active Ink Software (Form Designer) and Corel (Grafigo). All can be used to enhance office applications for pen and ink annotation, as well as to create customized forms that accept pen-based inputs.

The third change involves the tablet market’s evolution into two subspecies: slate and convertible form factors. Slates are geared for applications that don’t make use of a keyboard as the primary input device, although they can be fitted with optional USB keyboards in a pinch. They are lightweight, rugged and designed to be used while standing.

Convertibles tend to be used in office environments. Heavier—but less rugged—than slates, they come with attached keyboards and typically feature a rotating screen lid that can be positioned face up or face down as the user switches between pen-based and keyboard-based applications. In the past, these pivot hinges were prone to break, but today’s models are more rugged.

According to IDC analysts, tablets doubled their market share from 2006 to 2007, accounting for more than 7 percent of the mobile market last year. They are on a similar growth curve for this year.

Fujitsu sells both slates and convertibles, but most other vendors have specialized in one or the other. Motion Computing, for example, sells only slates and commands a majority of this market segment, according to analyst figures. And Dell entered the convertible tablet market and began shipping its Latitude XT model at the beginning of the year.

Most major laptop vendors offer at least one convertible tablet model. The majority can run either XP or Vista and offer a 12.1-inch screen that can be read easily in daylight. Some models also offer broadband modems for the ultimate in wireless computing.

So, with all these benefits, why haven’t tablets taken off? Several reasons: First, they can be hard to find. Few retailers offer more than a token model on their showroom floors, and even the major PC vendors don’t offer a variety of models. Also, many users are still under the mistaken notion that a tablet’s best use is to convert handwriting into text, rather than to store digital copies of their notes.

Cost is another drawback. Tablets remain at a price premium compared with ordinary laptops, though the difference is closing. IDC estimates tablets include just $150 more in additional materials than basic laptops. In fact, Gateway sells one tablet model for just $900. (See chart above.)

As a result, tablet PCs haven’t gotten major enterprise approval outside of hospitals. “Most people are generally satisfied with a laptop these days,” says Joint Venture’s Fearey. “Unless the user is a doctor or a police offer, there isn’t a single killer-app argument that will compel them to switch.”

Still, tablets are becoming more popular, and as the applications mature and the price premium disappears, you can expect to see more corporate IT managers purchasing these devices.

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