Tablet market still unclear

It’s been about a year since Microsoft Corp. unveiled its Windows XP Tablet

PC Edition, and while there has been some growth in the adoption of tablet PCs, one industry analyst said it’s still too early to tell if the personal computers will live up to Microsoft’s expectations of becoming the next mainstream notebook PC.

“The market itself is still pretty much in its infancy – it’s a nascent market,” said Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd.’s Eddie Chan, hardware research analyst. “The product didn’t reach the channel for a number of vendors until the December time frame last year, so we don’t have a full-year picture, but still, it’s too early to make a claim.”

Some of IDC’s early survey findings revealed that the tablet PC was in what Chan called the “evaluation stages” – where IT managers and upper management wanted to look at the products to determine whether the advances in employee productivity and streamlined businesses processes would actually translate into cost savings.

So, in the beginning the managers ordered a few of the PCs to evaluate them and now, Chan said IDC is seeing a greater pickup in terms of actual deployment.

There were early advances in terms of rolling out the tablets but “we are seeing sequential growth since [the tablet’s] inception, so we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

For Bill Hogarth, director of education for the York Region District School Board, the evaluation ended for the board’s three tablet PC’s several months ago, and it has since expanded its use of the tablets to about 100.

Initially only consultants were using the tablets, but now teachers and students have started working them into their daily routines, Hogarth added.

“Because of their portability, teachers can use them not only as a teaching tool but as an opportunity to observe how students learn and record as a result – so we’re looking at the power of and the flexibility of that tablet PC,” he said.

Hogarth said the board decided to expand its use of the tablets because initially it saw how useful they were. “The only way we were really going to do that was if we really tested them out.”

Now that the evaluation period is over, Elliott Katz, senior product manager with Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, said the tablet is right on track.

“We expected a large number of evaluations to take place and that deployment would take place following that period,” Katz said. “In the period today, we are starting to see some of those widespread deployments…so we are right on target.”

Katz said the tablet PC is the evolution of the notebook PC.

“You can do things in new and different ways on your PC,” he said. “People shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that on the tablet PC people can do everything that you can on your normal PC, plus more.”

Several hardware vendors have offered varied versions of the tablet, all using Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating systems. The operating system runs all Windows XP professional applications, and with the Windows Journal utility, allows users to write directly on the tablet’s screen using a pen tool. The operating system also includes a tablet input panel, sticky notes, a handwriting recognition engine and the .Net framework.

Another important element to be factored into the adoption of the tablet is that it was launched when the markets were still shrinking and when everybody was cutting back.

“It’s difficult to introduce new technology, especially when purse strings are all not quite loosened,” Chan explained. He added that while the past 12 months have not been the best for PC shipments, the market is starting to pick up.

IDC is projecting 29 per cent growth in the next five years for the tablets, he said.

“Obviously with better times in terms of business climate, we will see continued transactions in the marketplace,” Chan said.