By Gary Bolles

Technology: Tablet PCs




Capture and use data more efficiently with a pen-based portable PC? Sounds great— on (digital) paper.

The tablet computer has been a gleam in the eye of technology champions for decades. The promise of a seamless marriage of flat-panel hardware and flexible software has long been at the forefront of many visionaries' image of the ultimate information-consumption machine. Let people mimic the way they capture and read information from a paper pad, the thinking went, and productivity will shoot skyward.

The greatest strategic value for the organization would come, it was hoped, from capturing data that might otherwise be difficult to use, if not lost entirely. If you can get more data in digital format, you have a chance at beginning to whittle down the 80 percent or so of unstructured data held by just about every corporation, much of which may not be on a computer at all (see "Order Out of Chaos," May 2003). Think of all the paper notepads you've filled in your professional life, and how often you went back and sifted through those notes for a usable thought. Then multiply that by all the conventional notetakers in the organization, and think about the monumental task of trying to search colleagues' notes as well. That's a lot of unusable data—especially when one idea-needle in that yellowing paper haystack might be just the thought your company needs to solve a thorny problem.

In other cases, a new corporate mandate might require specific data to be captured and reported. Traditional paper-based forms typically result in wasted time in the course of translating text from paper to typed input. So why not use tablet computers to make sure data is captured efficiently from the start? That was one of the main drivers for Ashley Wharton, IT director for the Visiting Nurse Association of Central New Jersey. Capturing state-mandated patient information with their previous, proprietary pen computers was tough for the nurses. "We wanted a way to make life a little easier, so they're not bogged down collecting this kind of data," he said.

The other much-touted opportunity for tablet PCs is to support more flexible collaboration between workers. Early testing has focused on tablet-based applications designed to allow people to share whiteboard software that lets wireless workgroups simultaneously update a graphic under discussion. Other software is intended to help structure the brainstorming process, using so-called mindmaps to develop linked outlines of ideas. "When people are able to interact with their PCs in a more effective way, there really is an overall increase in productivity," insists Sumit Agnihotry, mobile products manager for Acer America Corp., which makes a line of tablet PCs.

Ask Your Business Constituents:

What business processes could be made more efficient if we captured data and graphic information more efficiently?

Ask Your CTO:

How much more data could we potentially capture if key workers used tablet PCs?

Ask Key Business Workgroups:

What kinds of collaborative processes do you now use that are heavily oriented to graphics and whiteboards?



Already using older versions of tablet-based PCs? You're the most likely candidate for the new model. Everyone else, stand in line.

Tablet PCs are best for companies that already use portable computers with a similar design, such as proprietary tablets used for capturing data. Medical applications, retail stock management and the activities of delivery personnel all involve business processes that match what tablet PCs are good at today. The structured data input steps of, say, pharmaceuti- cals sales or warehouse inventory tracking include heavily forms-based input that limits the need for much typing, and they rely on comprehensive databases that can be stored on a tablet or accessed through a wireless connection.

"It really comes down to what the workflow is," says John Keane, president of systems integration firm ArcStream Solutions Inc. "What kind of information are [users] capturing and processing?" Companies that might have considered PDAs, but decided the screen's real estate was too cramped or the device's storage was too anemic, may also find tablet PCs a more desirable alternative.

But tablet PCs have yet to prove their worth in the general white-collar office environment. Though the promise of improved productivity is compelling, most tablet PC notetaking and collaboration applications are little more than early attempts. It may well be that companies heavily dependent on creative, collaborative processes, such as ad agencies and architectural firms, can benefit from the direct pen input and shared workspaces that tablet PCs provide. Is there a single piece of software driving user productivity? "I don't know if there's one particular killer app, because people's jobs vary so much," says Kelly Berschauer, a tablet PC senior product manager at Microsoft. Few major deployments have yet occurred, so the digital jury is still out.

It's not just because the latest tablet PC offerings only came out late last year. Even when the data is captured, many companies haven't figured out how to manage it efficiently once it's stored somewhere. "The tablet gives you another tool to try to massage the data," says Ken Dulaney, vice president at Gartner Inc. "But it doesn't solve the underlying problem." If your company doesn't already astutely manage distributed, user-created data, adding tablets to the mix is likely to make life even more complicated.

Ask Your Business Process Modelers:

Here's an example of a business unit that might be able to use tablet PCs. How much could we improve its efficiency?

Ask Your CTO:

…And what would we do with the data once we capture it?

Tell Your Users:

We haven't established the value of tablet PCs for our company yet, so if you buy one you may be on your own for support.



Take a pen-sensitive screen, add Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and a few nascent pen applications, and what do you call it? A start.

The origins of tablet-based computing follow a circuitous route, beginning with MIT researcher Ivan Sutherland's 1963 thesis on the Sketch Pad, an early pen input device. Before he joined Xerox PARC in the early 1970s, researcher Alan Kay conceived of the Dynabook, a flexible tablet he envisioned as a portable, interactive PC. In 1981, Roger Fidler, now director of the Institute for CyberInformation at Kent State University, put forth a vision of electronic newspapers on a digital tablet. And a wave of pen-based computers in the early 1990s—remember companies like Slate and GRiD?—wasted millions of dollars of venture capital on an unimpressed market. Why? "The proprietary stuff was god-awful expensive," said Gartner's Dulaney. "You couldn't get support, and companies were going out of business right and left."

Given how long it's taken for today's tablet technology to see the light of day, it's reasonable to wonder, why now?

It's tempting to say that with its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, Microsoft has simply wished the tablet PC into existence in hopes of kickstarting the chicken-or-egg process of providing a platform for which software developers will create applications. But analysts maintain that tablet PCs really represent a number of technological trains arriving at the innovation station on a relatively tight timetable. Advances in flat-panel displays, microprocessors, disk storage and wireless networking all have incrementally contributed to their development. "It's really the continuing evolution of hardware," says Tom Bernhard, director of strategic product planning for Fujitsu PC Corp. "The biggest issue is, in the past, companies that wanted to implement a tablet solution had to do a lot of work, because the operating system didn't offer a complete package." For its part, Microsoft also uses the "e" word when talking about Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which is built on top of the current version of XP. "It's not this huge learning curve to do something new," says Microsoft's Berschauer. "We call it an evolutionary step."

Are we ready to declare this the whiz-bang generation of tablet PCs? Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, who's tracked the promise of tablet PCs, thinks not. "Personally, I think all the current devices bigger than PDAs are early-adopter artifacts," he says. Gartner's Dulaney agrees there's still substantial work to be done. "This is generation one of the tablet, and I would never expect generation one of any product to be great."

Ask Your CTO:

Does this equipment have enough power to support our critical mobile applications?

Ask Tablet PC Vendors:

Where are you planning to make near-term changes to the hardware, based on what you've learned to date?

Tell Interested Users:

We're going to need some time to determine where these might be useful in the company.



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.

The Ages of the


The Ages of the Tablet
Pen Computers Tablet PCs The Future
  • Early, low-powered processors
  • Minimal storage
  • Monochrome screens
  • Faster processors
  • More storage
  • High-resolution color displays
  • Built-in wired and wireless networking
  • Still faster processors, with low lower consumption
  • Even higher-resolution displays
  • More durable hardware
  • Software
  • Variety of proprietary operating systems
  • Limited to turnkey applications
  • Sanctioned version from Microsoft
  • Several early off-the-shelf applications
  • Various spin-offs of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition
  • Variety of reliable collaborative applications
  • Best For
  • Specific markets willing to pay a premium
  • Industry-standard upgrade for existing pen computer users
  • Broad range of corporate users
  • Limitations
  • Expensive
  • Limited in function
  • Poor handwriting recognition
  • Applications still limited in number and function
  • Not yet proven for a broad range of productivity workers
  • Somewhat better handwriting recognition
  • Unknown
  • This article was originally published on 07-17-2003