Microsoft spared no expense launching its new Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system and its partners' Tablet PCs in New York City Thursday, bringing in author Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter's Daughter) and actor Rob Lowe to sing the praises of the pen-based computers.
Both showed how they use tablets in their day-to-day work. For instance, Tan said she uses her tablet to take written notes in the margins of her manuscripts, and she can then e-mail the annotated manuscript to her editor, who can add further comments before returning it. Among other things, Lowe said that he uses his tablet to take notes on his scripts, demonstrating with an annotated copy of Wednesday's script for The West Wing.
A New Market?
But beyond the publishing and entertainment industries, Microsoft and its partners see the tablet as a tool to forge a new market, both from office workers that spend a great deal of time away from their desks and thereby necessitating a reliance on paper note taking, and workers in vertical markets that need highly mobile computers - police officers, real-estate agents, salespeople, etc.
At a round table discussion prior to the launch event at the Ambassador Theater Thursday, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates said that Microsoft considers the tablet to be "the biggest evolution in the PC for many, many years."
"The launch of the Tablet PC marks an exciting new era of mobile computing that is limited only by the imagination of its users," Gates said. "The Tablet PC is a great example of how computers are adapting to how people really work, whether they're taking notes in a meeting, collaborating wirelessly with colleagues or reading on screen. We're just scratching the surface of what's possible."
"It is a horizontal product," Gates said. "Virtually every application written for the PC can be enhanced by adding ink into the mix."
Gates added that he now uses his tablet as his primary PC. "Over the last two months, this has been the machine that I use and it's become really indispensable," he said.
Hewlett-Packard Chairman Carly Fiorina noted, "We think it's going to create additional excitement around the category. We think it has a lot of both horizontal and vertical applications."
Research firm Gartner Dataquest has forecast that tablets will have a slow start with little initial uptake outside of vertical markets. "Initial interest could cause an early spike in purchasing that will eventually level out," said Leslie Fiering, vice president for Gartner Dataquest. "Outside of the vertical industries, only the bravest will implement Tablet PCs widely toward the end of 2003."
However, Microsoft offered customer case studies from a number of businesses, from firms as diverse as convenience store giant 7-Eleven, pharmaceutical firm Aventis, electronics retailer Best Buy Co., Black & Veatch (a global engineering, construction and consulting company), and law firm Weil, Gotshal, & Manges, among others. All of them reported productivity gains based on utilizing the capabilities of the new computers.
For instance, Weil, Gotshal, & Manges, like most law firms, said it struggles under the weight of its attorneys' handwritten notes. The firm, with offices in eight countries and with practices that span seven departments and more than 50 law specialties, must catalogue, file and store all the notes produced by its attorneys. The notes are either stored in hardcopy form or manually converted into electronic text. Because the firm keeps the notes "cradle to grave," the notes require a "significant amount of the firm's resources," and are also difficult to store, manage and retrieve.
But in July 2002, WG&M's Silicon Valley office deployed Acer's TravelMate 100 Tablet PCs running the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system.
"When we first saw the Tablet PC, we knew it would be valuable to get the attorneys away from paper-based note taking," said Jim McGinnis, WG&M's chief information officer.
He added, "Attorneys are ecstatic about being able to search across file notes!"
On the other hand, 7-Eleven is deploying Tablet PCs across the board, including for its in-store maintenance crews, which use them to take inventory with the firm's Store Profile application.
"Deployed on the Tablet PC, this application can go wherever our maintenance crews go; up ladders, into crawl spaces, or behind a Slurpee beverage machine to get a serial number," said Keith Morrow, CIO of 7-Eleven. "Instead of resorting to filling out lengthy store inventory surveys by hand, maintenance crews can write or tap with their pens. They can also do drawings with rough measurements, for example, if they recommend putting in a new machine. The Tablet PC is easy, intuitive, and requires very little training."
However, the maintenance crews aren't the only 7-Eleven employees making use of tablets. The company has also deployed the computers in its Demand Chain Integration and IT groups and plans to put them in the hands of field consultants.
"In particular, we liked the way the Tablet PC could be used right in the store by our maintenance crews to take inventory, by our field consultants during a store walk, and by our store managers as they do merchandising - in short, by supporting our Retailer Initiative," said Kathy Walsh, 7-Eleven's director of Emerging Technologies. "Instead of using a notebook PC, we envisioned how knowledge workers in our IT, Legal and Demand Chain Integration Departments could take a Tablet PC with them on the road or to meetings and benefit from its added capabilities."
Another example is global engineering firm Bechtel National, which has worked on projects like the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in the UK, ExxonMobil's Singapore Chemical Complex, Viatel's Circe Pan-European Network, the Mayakan Pipeline in Mexico, and the Meizhou Wan power plant in China. Bechtel eyed the Tablet PC for its ability to enable digitized signatures in its Global Contract Management Information System (gCMIS) intranet application.
"The ink controls and advanced handwriting recognition of the Tablet PC got us to think about using this latest version of the PC to enhance our current business processes," said David Methot, contracts manager at Bechtel. "We saw the potential of the Tablet PC because it enables digitized signatures, precisely the feature that was missing from our gCMIS solution. We saw the Tablet PC as a key factor in our ability to move closer to an e-business process instead of a manual or paper-driven function."
But the functionality of the tablet has penetrated even further into Bechtel's business processes. The firm deployed the Acer TravelMate 100 to 20 of its employees in its Oak Ridge, Tenn. office, and the contract close-out team (comprised of management, contract administrator, and the controller team) said the ability to take notes with Windows Journal at meetings potentially saves the team 15 minutes during each meeting, which typically runs about an hour.
"For me, Windows Journal is a killer utility," said Mike Saho, Web application development manager with Bechtel Systems & Infrastructure. "I haven't taken a single note since we deployed Tablet PCs. I'm probably saving an hour a day by using Windows Journal to sort, search, retrieve and save my notes. Thanks to the Tablet PC, I have an incredible notes system."
He added, "If you focus on the entire work day, integrating the Tablet PC into your total work environment, not just for a specific function or application, you get a lot better idea of what the Tablet PC can do. From the knowledge worker's perspective, just replacing everything else with a single piece of hardware you can use anywhere is powerful. I can turn thirty minutes between meetings into a positive use of my time by visiting staff, pulling up their projects on the Tablet PC right at their desks, and getting some work done."
Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is a superset of Windows XP Professional Edition, offering all the capabilities of a Windows XP notebook computer in addition to the pen-based capabilities. Primarily they come in two form factors: A convertible, which has an attached keyboard and can operate in the traditional "clam shell" form (the user can swivel the screen around and lay it on top of the keyboard to turn the computer into a "slate"), or a slate with a separable keyboard that can be attached or detached according to the user's need. HP's offering incorporates both designs with a separable keyboard that features a swivel mount, allowing it to lay over on the keyboard like a convertible. Newcomer Motion Computing, which focuses exclusively on Tablet PCs, offers a computer that is only a slate, with no keyboard. However, all of the offerings, including Motion's, are capable of docking so they can be used as a primary desktop PC with a full sized monitor, mouse and keyboard.
Some of the docking stations, like the one for HP's Compaq Tablet PC1000, allow users to utilize two display monitors at once in order to expand workspace. Additionally, the flexible dock allows the user to lay the tablet flat on the desk to make it easier to write notes during tasks like speaking on the phone.
All of the docks are "grab-and-go" allowing the user to remove the tablet from the dock - and replace it - on the fly.
Anatomy of a Digitizer
The tablets, both those released Thursday and forthcoming products announced at the launch event, make use of inking technology that depends on a digitizer laid over - or under - the LCD screen to create an electromagnetic field which can capture motion as a series of data points reflected on the screen. They also require a special-purpose "pen."
Most of the products unveiled Thursday - including those by Acer, Fujitsu, Fujitsu-Siemens, Motion Computing, Toshiba, ViewSonic, WalkAbout and Xplore - utilize digitizers and pens developed by Japanese firm Wacom Co. Wacom offers a pressure-sensitive, battery-less electronic pen (and has even teamed with A.T. Cross Company to offer stylish executive pens for tablets).
The digitizer created by Wacom sends an electromagnetic signal to the pen, and the pen returns the signal for analysis. A grid of wires in the sensor board - placed under the LCD screen - alternates between transmit and receive modes about every 20 microseconds. In transmit mode, the sensor board's signal stimulates oscillation in a coil-and-capacitor resonant circuit in the pen. In receive mode, the energy of the resonant circuit oscillations in the pen is detected by the sensor board's antenna grid and analyzed for position, pressure, tilt and other information. Wacom Co. said its pens and digitizers recognize 256 levels of pressure and also feature optional electronic erasers.
In layman's terms, all this means that a user cannot inadvertently create a mark on a tablet document using a finger. It will only recognize the pen, which actually has the ability to "hover," allowing it to move the cursor without actually touching the LCD screen.
The digitizers used in Tablet PCs are capable of sampling 130 "pen events" per second, allowing them to create the effect of "real-time inking." This in turn allows the digital ink to appear at the same speed that the pen writes, no matter how fast it moves. Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is capable of recording the digital ink as ink, or translate it into text. Either way, it is fully searchable and exportable, even allowing the user to send hand-written emails, whether or not the recipient has a Tablet PC.
The inking technology remains a work in progress, and Gates promised that Microsoft will continue to innovate.
"Handwriting recognition is invaluable but it's not perfect," he said.
For instance, while the version of Office XP offered on the tablets allows the user to write "ink" e-mails, the user must open a text box within the e-mail message in order to write, and the client recognizes it as a picture file when transmitted. The forthcoming release of Office 11 is likely to change that.
"The next major release of Office, Office 11, will go even further in support of ink," Gates said. "A lot of the work on Office is based on that."