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Tablet PC skepticism misplaced

This is not your father’s Newton.

The story of the week is the official launch of the Tablet PC, which is a new Microsoft computing platform that combines pen input, keyboard input, and laptop power. I have read dozens of articles on the subject and almost all of them take a dim view of the new platform. Most of the criticisms range from naive to absurd. On the naive side, analysts have said it’s too similar to a conventional laptop design to be worth the upgrade. On the absurd side, analysts have said it’s too similar to the Newton and other pen-based systems that have already failed. “Why would Microsoft’s attempt at this be any different from the previous failed attempts?” seems to be the prevailing theme from this group of analysts.

It is clear from most of these comments that few analysts have had the chance to actually try one of these units, let alone imagine all the possibilities the new platform offers. I for one have been searching for a solution like this since I was merely a contributing editor of ComputerUser. While not every implementation of the rather flexible platform meets my needs, it’s an awfully good fist stab at meeting all my computing needs in a single device. I’ve been lucky enough to see units in action, and I’m impressed by what I see. I’ve also been apprised of the range of possibilities for types of jobs other than just office work to know that this is the beginning of something special in the computing field–something we have been hoping would come along in a beleaguered tech economy since everyone wanted to put “.com” at the end of their companies’ names.

As for the claim that it is too similar to conventional laptops, think of all the times you take notes on paper and imagine having the ability to archive these notes in digital form. The other day I temporarily misplaced my spiral-bound notebook in the construction melee at my house. It had important interviews, directives from the president of the company, and other management issues in it. The thought of losing it permanently made me physically ill. Fortunately I found it. But it made me think that if I had a computer that replaced the paper notebook and was backed up regularly, having all this important stuff archived would have made the search a nonissue. Regardless of how well the handwriting-to-text and drawings-to-GIF converters work (they are between a 1.0 and a 2.0 release, in terms of repeatability), just having the raw notes and drawings to search through with modern tools, share with others, and save for safekeeping would be worth a lot to me, to say nothing of the improved interface offered by pen-based mouse navigation.

As for the claims that it is too similar to other pen-only platforms, this is just rubbish. The fact is, you can do everything with these machines that you can do with a laptop. Pen-only machines assumed that handwriting would be an effective input system exclusively. When I had a Newton, the only accessory I thought I really needed was a keyboard, as good as the handwriting system was relative to everything that has been developed since. No one wants to compose letters, write e-mail, and use spreadsheets and databases with a pen. The pen-based system in the office is just for those times when a keyboard is clumsy, especially in meetings and interviews. Everyone needs a keyboard and a full-size screen for the majority of work, which makes pen-only systems a niche platform.

Simply put, the Tablet PC is the best of both worlds.

Finally, the Tablet PC gives people who can’t sit at a workstation and do their jobs at the same time the power of a PC. Office work is only a fraction of the workforce. Warehouses, construction sites, medical offices, hospitals, airports, trucks, retail outlets, and a slew of so-called vertical applications demand pen-based systems that can be carried around. In the past, computing in these environments was the realm of niche proprietary vendors. These systems were expensive and often didn’t talk to the PCs and servers back at the home office without expensive middleware.

Developing a system that integrated the front end (the workers in the warehouse) with the back-end (the home office and its entire server system) was a nightmare of mixed standards and failed projects. It was a hidden reason why Customer Relationship Management systems didn’t work–they depended on data from the field that didn’t relate to the data in the office. Now a company can develop one extension of Office applications (templates for forms input that import the data into back-end databases on the fly) that works from front to back and all points in between. And the PC can be the universal platform for every worker who needs to input data of any kind to suit their businesses. And they can perform analytics to better relate to their customers in real time.

Perhaps I’m missing something here, but this seems like a platform that can jump-start the tech economy. I’m not saying it’s there yet. We need several other building blocks in place to make the dream a reality (secure wireless networking standards, higher bandwidth, faster servers, better batteries and screens, etc., etc.). But it is the cornerstone of a solid foundation that can push the PC into all non-manual job titles. I can see scores of companies doing an ROI analysis on changing out their legacy proprietary solutions for the (not quite) open Tablet PC standard. In many cases, it may take a while for them to make the investment. But lots of companies–Northwest Airlines, Best Buy, UPS among them–will start the upgrade cycle soon. And business technology investment can get back on track in 2003.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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