By Jim Wagner
Through the 1990s, executives listened to their IT department heads explain why the company needed PDAs and other high-tech gadgets distributed throughout the workforce to improve "workplace efficiencies."
For those that bought into the promises of the mobile worker, the promised efficiencies didn't exactly deliver what they were expecting, according to mobile computer analyst Matt Sargent of ARS.
The PDA market surged from 1996 to 1999, culminating in $3.25 billion of sales in 2000, according to Dutch investment bank ABN AMRO. But the market stalled in 2001, only incrementally expanding. A down economy and glut of device makers has not held out high hopes for a return to the halcyon days of the late 90s.
Now, Microsoft is set to unveil its Tablet PC on Nov. 7, aiming to capture the mass market with a tablet boasting a notebook-sized screen and Microsoft's much-hyped pen technology.
"I'm already using a Tablet as my everyday computer," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said at last year's Comdex show. "Within five years it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."
The Mobile Enterprise
While Gates is enthusiastic about his Tablet PC, Microsoft's high hopes for the product hinge on making the case to businesses that the Tablet PCs, which are expected to cost around $2,000, can give businesses a tangible return on investment.
Nathan Clevenger, president and CEO of Clevrware, a company that advises organizations in integrating mobile computing into the enterprise, is not sure Microsoft will easily make that case.
While giving rave reviews for the Tablet PC as a workplace tool, he isn't sure how that will translate into sales for Microsoft.
"The problem is going to be executives and shareholders putting a lot of pressure on the IT people to not spend much money right now, mostly because in the late 90s, they spent so much money on a lot of technology that did not turn out to do what was promised," he says.
He adds IT companies will need to be pretty convincing in getting executive approval for the Tablet PC because the tool actually will improve the way companies do business.
"The Tablet PC is going to fill some very big gaps in the spectrum of devices, everything from the smart phone to the desktop PC," Clevenger says. "It will allow a morphing from tiny messaging devices with only a little data capability to the fully-functioning workstation."
Just Another Notebook?
Sargent says he isn't very optimistic of Microsoft's Tablet PC in the enterprise world, more from a user's perspective than from a budgetary one.
The question Microsoft has to answer is whether it's a replacement system, he says. "A lot of manufacturers have included a keyboard to put in with the Tablet PC to make them a full notebook, so why make it a Tablet PC then?
"It isn't very effective for entering large amounts of text, the reality is you or I could type a whole lot faster than we could write," he adds.
Clevenger has certain key criteria his company grades all new market entrants by: efficiency, ease of use and reliability. Unlike Sargent's assessment, he finds there's more pros than cons in the Tablet PC, which scored well in the categories and excelled in a couple of them.
The Tablet PC, equipped with 802.11b wireless LAN (WLAN) capabilities, gives the Microsoft product outstanding efficiency, while the operating system (which is a superset of Windows XP) gives the Tablet PC high marks in the ease-of-use category.
In fact, the Tablet PC is the first of its kind to allow legacy Windows applications to migrate to the handheld without the need for an application program interface (API).
But Clevenger also points out that there are drawbacks, which are accentuated by the fact the Tablet migrates the user-base from Windows XP on the desktop into a completely different environment.
"It's acceptable for a PC user to spend 30 seconds looking for a feature (in Windows)," he says. "But on a mobile device, 10 seconds of dead time while you're waiting for something might be unacceptable. Who knows where that person might be standing; what if they're waiting in the middle of a street?
"Usability - while important in a desktop environment - is the number one, most critical component in mobile computing, especially in the enterprise setting," he concludes.
But at the end of the day budgetary considerations, not technical improvements, will determine whether Microsoft's Tablet PC succeeds, and Sargent expects it will not fare well because of that reason.
"It can't be a primary computer for individuals; as an accessory it makes a lot of sense," he says. "In order for it to make sense, it needs to be priced at $200-300, but manufacturers are selling it for anywhere between $1,500-3,000, the price of a high-end notebook."
Buyers will have a chance to decide for themselves once Microsoft formally unveils the Tablet PC next month.
-- Brian Morrissey contributed to this story.