Penning for gold

There is a Chinese proverb which states that past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide to the future. This could hold true for one device that some are heralding as the PC of the future – the pen tablet PC.

Many people probably have heard of or remember that it was a really big deal when a student moved up from their slate to the inkwell. Perhaps tomorrow’s generation of students will think it is a big deal to move from their notebook, paper that is, to their “slate” computer.

At Comdex 2000 and again in 2001 Bill Gates spoke in glowing terms of the possibilities held by the pen tablet. He prophesized a time when the Tablet PC will be the form factor of choice for just about everyone.

Brian Groh cannot wait for that day to come. As one of the founders of Xplore Technologies Corp., which shares headquarters in Mississauga, Ont., and Austin, Groh has been in the rugged pen tablet business for a few years now.

Groh, president and CEO of Xplore, said the pen tablet industry has been aimed at niche markets for a long time and it is nice to hear that people are looking at taking the devices to new levels.

“The predominant users today would be field workers, and in that group I include warehousing, hospitality. All of those applications are clearly moving into standardizing on the pen tablet. We’re not seeing it in the office yet.

“I know by Bill Gates’ comments that he believes the pen tablet is the PC of the future. We absolutely believe that and have for some time.”

He added that as the software applications for tablet PCs continue to grow, they are becoming more user friendly and this is starting to eliminate the need for the keyboard.

“The input is becoming so much easier. The technology is becoming more user friendly in the sense that the software has to become more user friendly to fit the pen tablet market,” Groh said.

Craig Farrow co-founder of Xplore and executive vice-president, said the pen tablet lends itself to more versatility than a laptop or “clamshell”.

“Take a standard police department. They generally keep the units locked in the vehicles, but there are times when they want to take the devices into the office and hook it up to the LAN to do reports. They can also take a tablet to the crime scene and do the reporting at the location. The tablet tends to provide a lot more versatility from a mobile perspective.”

However, Groh noted that the pen tablet is in no shape to take over the desktop PC market. “There are several things, that for us to be able to have that vision, would be required, such as software, the applications, other peripherals. Clearly if you’re in a word processing application, a keyboard makes a lot of sense over (a) tablet. However, once you introduce speech recognition, now you have a competing environment.”

Another rugged pen tablet vendor, Psion Teklogix, has focused on the warehouse and construction applications for pen tablets.

Mike Marsh, director of marketing and business development for mobile computing at Mississauga, Ont.-based Psion, said one of the main things that its NetPad has going for it is that it lies somewhere right in the middle of a laptop and a handheld, but is smaller than other pen tablet PCs.

He added that many newer software vendors are building applications suited to pen tablets. “Companies are taking advantage of the smaller form factor screens, of thing like Java and GUI type environments and the touch screen format to build applications that require less of a keyboard and more drop down menus and pick and choose type formats. All these things make tablets much more effective than a keyboard in many situations.”

Marsh said he thinks there is a real move in the market for new input modes.

“I think we started with the keyboard as an input mode and it’s restrictive. A lot of people are not good typists and there is the small size of the keys and the different functions you have to remember. Then we went to the mouse and that offered a lot of advantages for people to move around the screen quickly. It was a big improvement in man-computer interface,” Marsh said.

“More recently the touch tablet came along and that was another improvement. The other one you still see is the bar code scanner and ID scanning. And then there is speech, where you can actually speak into the system and have your commands recognized. People who want their hands free can use spoken commands.”

People can always add a keyboard to pen tablets, he said. “Some people will say it’s really critical to have that flexibility.”

Marsh said he was a little surprised at Bill Gates’s predictions. He wasn’t expecting that the enterprise seems so ready to welcome the pen tablet.

He did say that pen tablets will probably be the dominant and most flexible platform in the future and that people will develop their core products with the touch tablet in mind, because it affords them the opportunity to attach a keyboard if they choose or to offer speech recognition tools.

He also noted that the pen tablet is not really a new concept either, as companies such as Xplore and Psion have been in the market for almost five years and Fujitsu has had a tablet available for more than 10 years.

The touch screen is important to the future of the pen tablet, according to Randall Martin. He said the another important factor having a really high quality display in a mobile form factor.

Martin, director of the Access Business Design Centre for Compaq Corp. in Houston, said the price has also come down quite a bit.

“The other thing is I think the software is finally there. A few years ago we jumped on the bandwagon for a hybrid notebook/pen computing product and the handwriting recognition software wasn’t there. When you have to train somebody to write a new form of shorthand, that just doesn’t go over,” Martin said.

“Now with the processing speed and the handwriting recognition technology, I think we’ve finally got somewhere.”

The write stuff

Compaq started back on the pen tablet track because of a visit to Duke University in North Carolina, according to Martin. He said Compaq visited their school of business where they have a very computerized environment with professors actually beaming power point presentations to the students.

“What they found in the classroom situations, was that the students would come in and put up their laptops and it would form almost a black wall between the professor and the class. So, we were getting a lot of feedback from professors who felt they were losing out on that one on one feeling with their students,” Martin said.

It was at this point that Compaq started investigating form factors that would be more conducive to higher education. Martin noted other clients were interested in this form as well.

“People were saying, ‘Yeah, we went to a large corporate meeting and we were presenting and all these folks were sitting there with these laptops and they pulled the screens up and we hear clackety-clack on the keyboard and we didn’t know if they were listening or doing their e-mail.’ So, there’s something about this pen tablet – and you can make eye contact and people can see what others are doing,” Martin said.

Another plus, he said, is that users can draw a diagram and the tablet can capture exactly what the pen is rendering. “You can underline and asterisk some of your work. I think the time has come that a lot of people are going to find that interesting.”

However he was not ready to say that the tablet is going to be the form factor of choice in the next few years.

“I speak across the country on innovation for Compaq and people, according to their particular area of expertise, are always trying to get me to kill off a form factor. You know, saying, ‘Will this replace notebooks or will notebooks replace laptops?’ And I think what we’re seeing is that this really comes down to access of information,” he continued.

“Various devices are more suited to various types of access. You hear a lot about WAP phones – well that’s fine for phone calls or if you want to get a quick stock quote, but you’re not going to write e-mail on a WAP phone. I think the same is true about the tablet PC. We’ve heard a lot of people say that they can type faster than they write.”

Martin said that the industry and users have moved beyond computing to communicating, “and there are various ways people communicate, so you have to have alternatives for those people to work the way they want to work.”

The PDA is an ideal solution for people who are looking for a device to do e-mailing and organizing, Marsh said, adding that a device that merges cell phones with PDAs might be another answer.

“I think the tablet is for those workers who will be task specific. We’re being asked not to ship games and add-ons with the NetPad because the employers just want people doing the tasks they are assigned to do,” he said.

The not-so-mighty pen

Charlotte Burke, vice-president of market development for Bell Mobility, said the two stickiest trends in the last 12 months that she has seen, and continues to see, are the handhelds and integrated wireless messaging devices.

“We have not seen a tablet product yet that delivers the versatility of the form factor as well as the computing capability. However, there’s a whole new wave of them and we will test some of them, but at this point it really hasn’t been a popular form factor,” Burke said, adding that it seemed that users were trading off some of the laptop functionality to get a slimmer version.

Bell Mobility still finds that people are buying notebooks or going to handhelds, she said.

Burke is not a fan of pen tablets, although she’s still open minded that their day may come.

“I think you’ll see a tablet form factor because it does have the benefit of full-sized screen technology. I think it’s a question of finding the killer product. Getting the right combination of that functionality with the power of performance.”

She added she wouldn’t want to put the final nail in the coffin of the pen PC because she thought it was a question of putting the right pieces together. “I think it’s just a product the time has not been right for so far. I don’t have any breakthrough thoughts on the tablet – I can’t get any more enthusiastic about that.”

She said that as far as sending e-mails at meetings, people do not need a pen tablet to do that discreetly.

“The thing is that what people need to do fast and on-the-go is send messages to each other and that’s not where the tablet works best. For the extra functionality you get by having a tablet and handwriting – well most people are getting pretty proficient at two or more finger typing,” Burke said.

The idea of the pen tablet taking over the PC seems a little far fetched to Warren Chaisatien, a telecom analyst for IDC Canada in Toronto.

Chaisatien said there will definitely be growing numbers of users, but the popularity of this form factor will not surpass that of the traditional PC, whether desktop or notebook.

“Tablets are like niche gadgets,” Chaisatien said. “If you are primarily non-mobile then you need a desktop. If you are mobile then you are likely to look to a notebook or a handheld.”

He said the handheld market is continually growing, while the tablet has not remotely entered the computing mainstream.

“I think the handheld is eclipsing the tablet, even though the tablet has been around longer. Tablets are expensive and if you are going to shell out that kind of money, you may as well buy a notebook,” he said.

Tablets have their place and will have their time, he said, adding that when the economy picks up people may want to try new gadgets like these.