Bill Gates is back to giving tablet computing its occasional booster shot. Last week, speaking in Holland, the Gatester predicted that tablet PCs would replace textbooks for all students.
If that doesn't make tablet PC marketing managers' heart beats spike and their spread sheet projections go through the roof, then there's nothing that can be done for them.
Well actually there is an it's up to Microsoft to do it. The one thing that's needed now is Vista, which will contain updates to Windows' aging tablet PC drivers and which will be the keystone to the release of new, better performing tablet PCs. Microsoft's push back on the release of Vista upset more than a few marketing managers' plans. It also has likely delayed the release of new hardware needed to help push tablet PCs directly into the mainstream.
Absent commercial release of Vista, Microsoft appears to be using it Origami UMPC spec to test new tablet PC operating system code. Although I don't t think UMPC will be much of a success in the long term, anything that gets tablet PCs going mainstream is good for the industry and this category.
Speaking way back in 2001 at Comdex (remember Comdex?) Gates predicted that within five years tablet PCs would be the most popular form factor sold in the US.
Well, no one can ever say that Gates has been hesitant to climb out on a limb. It's been five years since Gates made his prediction but little has happened in the market to position tablet PCs a viable alternative to mainstream notebooks. However, if you look beneath the hood of today's tablet PCs what you find is state of the art portable that--thanks to Intel DuoCore Pentium M processors and a lot of hard work by manufacturers on power management-- has enough power to keep you working from wheels up to the initial descent on transcontinental or transoceanic flights. More importantly, what today's mainstream tablet PCs from HP, Lenovo and Toshiba do is bring new meaning to the word "versatility."
I'm intimately familiar with two of the best selling tablet PCs, a Lenovo ThinkPad X41 and a Hewlett Packard TC1100. In fact it was after briefly using an HP TC1100 at Demo Fall 2005 that I got interested in tablet computing again. As I've written in earlier blogs, I became disillusioned in tablet PCs after using a device called an M240 from a smoking hole in the floor of Silicon Valley caused by a company called Momenta Inc.
But, It turns out, I'm a die hard tablet PC fan so I jumped at the chance to use and evaluate a Lenovo ThinkPad X41. After living with one for nearly five months, the versatility, power and usefulness of this platform device has me hooked. The tablet PC has cut the tether that bound me to the desk in my office. It's light enough that I take it with me in the mornings when I go out to my garden, have my morning coffee, tend to email, and read the various on line versions of newspapers I'm interested in. When I'm done with that, I go into tablet mode and tap in the various observations I record on my tomato, pepper and hybrid potatoes I'm growing in my two gardens. And, unlike other notebooks I've used in the last two years, I've never found myself out of range of my wireless networks-- which is more than 200 feet from the access points in my house. Although the documentation for my X41 suggests I not use it outside, I do sonearly everyday and have found that as long as the screen is not flooded by direct sunlight, I can use the machine comfortably and see what's on the display easily until I'm ready to go back indoors so that My dog can see that I've not run away and have settled down with my second cup of Folgers.
Second generation tablet PCs like those made by Hewlett Packard, Lenovo and Toshiba still have a ways to go and the manufacturers are working on improvements-- some subtle, some pretty dramatic-- that meet my needs and which I think will carry the form factor forward for at least another four or five years. Paramount in the list of improvements under way are brighter screens, improved boot up and overall performance as well as more consistent operations when the machines are put into "Suspend Mode." I also think that some of the tablet PC makers will raise the bar for securing data by adding hardware based encryption in coming versions of new hardware.
For now, I'm quite satisfied with my light weight Lenovo tablet. I boot it up in the morning, carry it with me as I work outdoors and close the lid to work elsewhere on my property.But what really has me sold on the long term viability of this platform today is its versatility as both a conventional compact, lightweight notebook and tablet PC, its above average performance for routine computing tasks, superior wireless technology, and its outstanding battery life ( in fact, as i write this, I've had my X41 off AC power for more than 4 hours and it's still got a substantial charge remaining in its battery.
This is a far cry from first generation tablet PCs, which had limited battery lives, substandard performance and didn't work as advertised.Moreover, first generation Pen-enabled applications were less than satisfactory whereas today's mainstream office productivity apps work interchangeably for pen-based or keyboard data entry. The future looks quite bright for tablet PCs. but manufacturers need to put the fire to Microsoft to get features like "Instant On" and to develop more refined drivers for new forms of data input.
I love the form factor and the inherent capabilities of tablet PCs, I think this class of computers is about ready for wide scale corporate deployment. I'm sold on the technology and intend on using this machines for years to come.--Jim Forbes