Should you be kicking the tablet's tires?

Despite some widely publicized initial sales figures that vendors said exceeded their expectations, analysts say most of these purchases reflected pent-up demand from traditional tablet computer users upgrading their older, proprietary systems as part of their standard technology cycles. Outside of these low-hanging fruit, it's not clear yet where to look for further growth in tablet PCs.

"Microsoft had made a lot of wild projections about [tablet PCs comprising] one third to one half of all notebooks sold in the first year" the tablet was issued, says Gartner's Dulaney. "What we found was that there was more need than a lot of the vendors thought there was, but not as much demand as Microsoft thought there was."

"Even today, if you look at who is buying these in large quantities, it's still the [existing] tablet users," admits Acer's Agnihotry. However, he maintains, "we expect the tablet PC to become more mainstream in the second half of this year."

Right now, depending on the vendor, tablet PCs cost about $300 to $500 more than a comparably equipped laptop. That's enough of a price pop to give some IT shops pause. But it shouldn't be so much of a difference as to keep IT shops from considering a few tablets in some well-chosen spots around the organization. The goal is to locate pockets of users whose requirements for pen-based input or group collaboration might lend themselves to a test run with off-the-shelf tablet PC hardware and software.

One component of your networking infrastructure that can help test the tablet PC's potential is Wi-Fi. Requiring collaborating teams to continually plug into a wired network during what can often be ad hoc meetings is probably limiting some of the chances for productivity gains. And since analysts claim that tablet PCs can make workers even more mobile than standard laptops, thanks to their ability to do double-duty as both pen and keyboard input devices, a wireless network also provides users greater access to corporate resources as they're moving around the office.

As with all new computing platforms, time will heal some of the tablet PC's initial wounds. For example, it's likely that the price penalty for a pen-sensitive screen will descend rapidly, and that corporations will find over the long term that the differential cost of a tablet PC will be minimal compared to a similarly equipped laptop.

More challenging will be the potential support costs of tablet PCs—not so much because they're more complex to use but because IT will have to work harder to make sure the applications are as simple as possible, and easy to use. Pen-based applications can only get better, but if they can't meet your needs off the shelf today, make sure you're taking a hard look at the costs of adapting that software—if it's even possible—to your specific requirements. Otherwise, taking these tablets will create more headaches than they relieve.

Ask Tablet PC Vendors:

Show me some customers with needs like mine who have at least done the initial assessment of tablet PCs.

Ask Your IT Staff:

Where are the likely users within the organization who could pilot the use of a tablet PC in doing their daily work?

Tell Interested Users:

If you want a tablet PC, make sure you can use off-the-shelf applications, or else be prepared to pay for the necessary development and support work for us to adapt it to your needs.

This article was originally published on 07-17-2003
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