Tablet PCs inspire business use hopes

Microsoft Corp. Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates promoted the Tablet PC during his Comdex keynote address for the second straight year even though the machines aren’t expected to ship for another year and their specifications are still in flux.

Yet IT professionals have already begun to envision ways their companies might benefit from the notepadlike, wireless-enabled, fully functioning PCs, which can be used with keyboards or pens and “digital ink.” More than 70 per cent of 15 randomly polled Comdex attendees said their firms may consider buying some Tablet PCs when they hit the market.

“Depending on how the manufacturers configure the hardware, this could be a logical next step in our business,” said Harold Knowlton, CIO at Devon, Pa.-based Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors, which has about 900 employees and 3,500 independent agents. He said the Tablet PC could boost agents’ ability to serve customers in the field.

Knowlton said that he has been scoping out wireless personal digital assistants (PDA) but users would prefer standard PC-type functions rather than the customized subset they get with PDAs. Plus, his firm can go wireless without having to rewrite its Web applications, Knowlton said.

Master Sgt. Brian Hill, a network manager at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, said his squadron is experimenting with wireless networked Pocket PCs for mobility in responding to calls for IT support. But he said he would prefer a Tablet PC for the extra screen space.

“In my workstation back at my desk, I have multiple windows open,” Hill said. “If I can have that and carry it along with me, that’s a plus.”

Gary Steinkamp, president of Phoenix-based The Health Source Inc., which sells software and computers to doctors, small clinics and hospitals, said he’s seeing huge interest in Tablet PCs from health care professionals. “In my industry, electronic medical records are now the buzz,” he said. “They want to get to an electronic, paperless office.”

Doctors want to be able to jot down patient notes at their offices or at the hospital and not have to re-enter the information into their computers, Steinkamp said. They also want to be able to take their computers home and access the network to view medical records when they’re on call, he added.

Ellen Bristow, IT director for the 540-person San Juan County government in Aztec, N.M., said the Tablet PC is appealing as a tool for those commissioners who “aren’t real computer-literate.”

“I think it would be real beneficial to them to be able to sit and take notes instead of typing,” Bristow said.

Dan North, a webmaster at Frederick’s of Hollywood Inc., said Tablet PCs may help bridge the gap for the Hollywood-based retailer’s district managers, many of whom are “technophobes.” But even he would like to be able to draw charts into a document. “That’s next to impossible in [Microsoft] Word. If I can just scribble it out, my life’s a lot easier,” North said.

Equipped with a special edition of Windows XP, the Tablet PCs will have the ability to transform handwriting into typed text, making it searchable, Microsoft officials said. They will also be able to store notes just the way a person wrote them, using what Microsoft calls digital ink, which makes it possible to move or highlight handwritten words. Windows XP-equipped Tablet PCs will also have speech-recognition capabilities, so recorded audio can be changed to text.

Luther Marcena, program manager for the Advanced Technology Center at El Paso Community College in Texas, said he can envision students exchanging handwritten, audio-recorded or videotaped notes via infrared transfer. “It’s the next step,” he said. “It will promote collaboration among the students, which we’re trying to do anyway.”

Rodger Soper, who works in information services at Disney Worldwide Services Inc. in Burbank, Calif., said he sees the Tablet PC as a productivity tool. He said he was pleased that Microsoft last week announced plans to extend Office XP to the Tablet PC. “That’s going to make it really work,” Soper said.

Or Maybe Not

Not everyone is convinced of the merits or future success of the Tablet PCs that Microsoft and its hardware partners promoted last week at Comdex.

David Bailey, a research analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co., an investment bank in New York, said he foresees limited potential for the Tablet PC at his firm. “A lot of people are just trying to get more productivity out of the PCs that they have,” he said.

“People keep trying to wring more uses out of the old form factors, the old PCs. I’m somewhat skeptical about their ability to really drive into new markets at this point,” Bailey said. “A lot of these ideas have been around for a long time. IBM had a tablet PC, the WordPad, out several years ago with limited success.”

Thomas Wigginton, director of IT for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga., said the Tablet PCs will be viewed as too big by his mobile users, who want small devices to check e-mail or view and project PowerPoint presentations.

Paul Nealon, a decision support analyst at Computer Bookshops Ltd. in Birmingham, England, said his firm’s sales representatives already use limited-function tablets. But, Nealon said, his firm probably can’t justify a US$2,000 notepad.

Tom Sabatino, a consultant at T.C. Rose Co., a computer sales and service firm in North Tonawanda, N.Y., said he doesn’t expect to see Fortune 500 companies make any giant leaps to the Tablet PC.

“You can’t just dump a new product into a corporate structure without bringing the whole corporation upward, and for many corporations, that’s too costly,” Sabatino said. The Tablet PC, however, might being useful for certain employees in limited areas, he said.

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