Tablet watch 2001

The big Comdex gadget story this year? No question, it’s the Tablet PC. IBM Corp. won’t be making one, and Michael Dell doesn’t think there’s a market for them. But Microsoft Corp. claims that inside five years, Tablet PCs will elbow aside traditional laptops and even desktop machines to become the most popular form of PC.

That’s, er, unlikely. Especially when you consider that Tablet PCs have been on the market pretty much continuously since 1989, and Microsoft has been pushing them, on and off, for most of that time.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be ready just in case.

There’s no way for corporate IT people to figure out whether Tablet PCs will actually take off this time. Microsoft’s backing is no guarantee; Microsoft also backed PenWindows, Windows for Pen and the Pen PC. Hardware heavyweights don’t carry much weight either: IBM, Toshiba Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd. have all made Tablet PCs that never found more than a niche market. (In fact, you don’t have to wait for next year you can buy a Fujitsu Tablet PC today.)

We can’t analyse the specifications and know for sure, because the specs just tell us what these gadgets are – not whether they’ll be useful. We can’t take analysts’ bouquets or brickbats at face value, because they don’t have any more production-level experience with these things than we do.

Fortunately, we don’t have to figure it out. All we have to do is keep an eye on the real gadget experts: our users.

If lots of them buy these gizmos out of their own wallets, insist on dragging them into the office and keep using them for months that’s when we’ll know they may be worth officially supporting.

If users never give the gizmos more than a yawn, we’ll know Tablet PCs are still specialty items.

And if users start bringing them in, but they disappear after a month or two, we’ll all breathe a sigh of relief. That means the Tablets looked better than they really worked – at least for the kinds of work our users do. And we won’t have to spend a nickel of our own budgets to find that out.

That’s the thing about users and gadgets – they will try them out. Ever since users started smuggling in Apple IIs with Visicalc spreadsheet software on them, they’ve been causing us grief with nonstandard, unapproved technology.

But they’re also the best judges of whether the gadgets help them do their jobs better. And they’re ruthless about making those decisions. After all, when you’re an unauthorized gadget user, that gadget better be worth the risk.

More to the point, they’ll sometimes give a thumbs-up to stuff we’d never dare to force on them.

Case in point: the Palm Pilot. When it first showed up, IT people knew it was a dandy gizmo. But it was tiny and tough to read. And its weird system of sort-of-recognizing-something-kind-of-like-handwriting was hard to learn, error-prone and pretty geeky. Any IT shop that tried to force it on users would face open revolt.

Who knew users would snap up Palms on their own, teach themselves how to use them and then demand IT shops to support them? Answer: Nobody – not even the users themselves, until they actually did it.

Best of all, letting users figure out which gadgets are useful makes the users happy. They get more control over that IT decision, and they get to tell us what to do for a change.

So watch your users carefully as Tablet PCs and other high-tech widgets arrive. It’s the cheapest and most accurate way of finding out whether these products have potential in your business.

And on the outside chance that users find this new batch of Tablets to be more useful than they have since 1989 well, this way you’ll be ready.