Microsoft unveils tablet PC

Integrators, resellers see profitable niches for new technology that allows users to write on the screen

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner tries a tablet PC at product launch event.

Microsoft Corp.

Will government agencies replace 99-cent clipboards with $2,300 portable computers?

Integrators, resellers and distributors are exploring the possibilities of recently released tablet PCs powered by a new version of Microsoft Corp.'s operating system that allows users to write directly on the screen. Although skeptical of company predictions that tablet PCs will eventually replace most personal computers, they see many niche markets for the device, especially where the need for remote computing is strong.


Overall, a new market for tablet PCs may depend on systems integrators who can make the business case for the switchover.

An agency "just buying the tablet PC for the sake of buying one isn't really gaining anything, unless it is leveraging all the latent capacity of its existing systems," said Rick Engle, principal technology specialist for Microsoft's federal practice.

On Nov. 12, Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., unveiled its Windows XP for Tablet PC Edition, launching a marketing push to rival the release of Windows 95. In conjunction, almost two dozen vendors rolled out Windows-endowed tablet PCs, each costing $2,300 to $2,800.

Tablet PCs are similar to portable laptop computers, but allow handwritten input. Some models have attached keyboards, others have attachable keyboards and still others only accept handwriting.

"We're very comfortable writing on a piece of paper. When we take meeting notes, it's often more efficient to write them down. This is what the tablet PC is leveraging," said Mark Thoreson, a senior technologist for GTSI Corp., a Chantilly, Va.-based reseller.

Portable devices with touchscreen inputs have been around for a while, but wider use should be facilitated now that developers have a standardized platform, Microsoft officials said.

At recent industry conferences, Microsoft Chairman William Gates has predicted that the majority of computer sales within the next five years will be tablet PCs.

Outside of Redmond, however, industry officials expect more modest sales.

"I'm beginning to see a few folks willing to experiment with them, although it's far from a groundswell of demand," said Mike Boese, deputy chief technology officer of Advanced Information Systems unit of General Dynamics Corp., Falls Church, Va.

Analyst Leslie Fiering of Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner has predicted that 425,000 units will be sold in 2003, a small percentage of the 35 million PCs Gartner estimates are sold annually.

GTSI estimates about 10 percent of the tablet PCs sold in 2003 will be in the public sector, said Scott Freelander, vice president for technology teams at the company. Using Gartner's numbers as a baseline, government resellers may expect to ship about 40,000 units next year.

Most industry observers agree that initial sales will be for agencies wishing to evaluate the technology, and one of the areas most closely scrutinized is how the devices may be able to save money by moving paperwork to an electronic format.

"We're seeing a lot of interest at the [Office of Management and Budget's] CIO office. They're seeing the benefits of something like this with the vast amounts of paperwork that they deal with," said Engle.

Microsoft's tablet operating system features an improved handwriting recognition capability that can be used to fill out electronic forms using a pen-like stylus. The captured information can be automatically converted into text.

One agency Engle said may be able to benefit from tablet PCs is the Census Bureau, which every 10 years must dispatch can army of workers across the country to gather information on the U.S. population.

"Imagine that instead of having an extremely detailed form to fill out by paper, a census worker at a person's home could capture information immediately" on computer, Engle said.

To get ready for the 2000 census, the bureau spent approximately $500 million to improve data capturing processes, including investigations into using electronic imaging and handheld devices as a way to capture handwritten data, according to a November General Accounting Office report. Early research and development contracts have also been issued to gear up for the 2010 census.

In order for agencies to take full advantage of tablet PCs, integrators will play an integral role, Engle said. Not only do tablet applications and electronic forms need to be designed, but conduits must be set up to pipe the information from the tablets to the back-office processing systems. Intranet servers also must be set up to deliver forms, documentation and other information to workers equipped with tablet PCs.

Other emerging markets may be in the fields of education institutions and emergency response, said Burl Williams, senior vice president for reseller Micro Warehouse, Gov/Ed Inc., the Ashburn, Va.-based subsidiary of Micro Warehouse, Norwalk, Conn.

"Most colleges and universities have set up wireless networks, or are thinking about doing so," Williams said. Since most tablet PCs have wireless Wi-Fi capability built in, they would be a natural fit for both students and faculty needing to trade homework assignments and other information.

Williams said the Navy issues personal digital assistants to all incoming Naval Academy students for tasks such as checking e-mail, scheduling and note taking. A tablet PC would be of more use, since it has greater flexibility and a wider screen.

Police departments can add fingerprint readers onto a tablet PC, offering a way for officers to grab fingerprints during an arrest, Williams said. The PC would also allow the officer to fill out reports directly at the scene of a crime or accident and transmit them immediately back to headquarters.

Anne Brennan, the government sales manager for the distributor D&H Distributing Company Inc., Harrisburg, Pa., said she sees how release of Windows Tablet PC edition will encourage manufacturers to offer more customized tablet PCs, which in turn may be used by integrators to build new solutions.

D&H is planning to offer customized units from Electrovaya Inc., Mississauga, Ontario, that can run on battery power for 16 hours, rather than the three or so hours typically offered by other tablet PC's. Brennan has shown them to military integrators to positive response.

General Dynamics' Boese said he sees the tablet best used for specific, narrowly defined applications, such as inventory control and to support "corridor warriors" who roam offices rarely spending time in one location.

But they may not be versatile enough to challenge the dominance of desktop computers, he said. Unless an agency wants to pay for each person to have two computers, a worker's tablet model would also have to serve as a desktop computer, a job it would not be as well-suited for, especially those lacking keyboards.

For the tablet PC to be deployed widely across an agency, "you would need a group of people who do nothing but attend meetings," Boese said. *

Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at jjackson@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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