The cosmic forces are aligning for the Tablet PC and I believe that 2006 and 2007 will be the years that the Tablet PC really makes the big time. Yeah, I know people have been saying that since 2002 when Microsoft first launched Windows XP Tablet Edition. In fact some people have been saying that long before 2002 as tablet like products have come and gone and been wrong. Times have changed.
Why is the time right?
In my opinion there are several key influences that have been driving Tablet adoption in the last year and there are a couple more important events on the horizon. These key influences are:
· Mobile computing in general is taking off.
· Connectivity is trending towards being universal.
· The limitations of battery life are being reduced.
· The range of devices available is increasing.
· The range of software written to be tablet aware or tablet specific is increasing.
· The marginal cost of a tablet over a laptop is decreasing.
· Awareness of the Tablet PC as an option is increasing.
· The distinction between “Laptop” and “Tablet” is going to be removed with Windows Vista.
Individually each of the above is important and each deserves more of an explanation.
The rise of Mobile Computing
In general computer users are becoming more mobile. As the technologies such as connectivity and battery – discussed below - have improved users have consistently raised their expectations about what they should be able to do in the field. Most pundants expect that Mobile PC sales will soon outstrip traditional desktop sales. I have heard some say that in New Zealand and Australia this will occur in 2006. I believe that there is another thing going on here as well. As mobile computers start to dominate the market personal computers will become, well, personal. In the consumer space you will see more households where rather than a shared household desktop computer each person will have their own mobile personal computer.
Connectivity is becoming more universal
Increasingly Internet access is available when and where you need it and the cost of these ad-hoc connections is relatively low. Public paid Wi-Fi access points are showing up in cafes, airport lounges, doctors offices, dentist waiting rooms, buses, trains, bus and train stations and many more places. In addition to this 3G mobile technologies such as EVDO allow you to have your Internet connection with you and the coverage of celluar networks is expanding. Expect to see EVDO modules embedded in some Tablet devices soon.
Limitations of battery life are reducing
This is coming about for two reasons. Firstly – many devices, such as the Motion LE 1600 and the Toshiba M400 have optional expansion batteries that greatly extend the running time of the tablet pc. The second factor that is removing limitations of battery life is less obvious, but just as relevant. There are more places where a traveller can plug their tablet in and recharge. Power outlets are available in some cafes, airport lounges and even on some flights. This helps extend the reach of the mobile worker.
The range of devices available is increasing
There are a staggering array of Tablet PCs available. They come in all shapes and sizes and – as the UMPC devices start shipping – this is increasing rapidly. In addition to this the UMPCs may be the harbinger of another trend. Some UMPCs have cameras, some have inbuilt GPS and some don't have any special inbuilt hardware. Could this trend extend to traditional tablets?
Whatever the case the range is a far cry from the situation in 2002 when the tablet was launched. Back then some tablet buyers felt like Goldilocks – but there was no option that was “just right”. As the range continues to increase more and more tablet buyers will be able to find the model that slots nicely into their work and or life.
The range of software available is increasing
This is the biggie. More and more clever developers are making software that is not only tablet aware but that truly leverages tablet functionality. Some great examples of this include:
· Mindjet MindManager Pro 6 – includes a pen mode that allows you to insert, delete, cut, copy and paste (and much more) with a stroke. It also allows direct ink text entry and this can optionally be converted from ink to text if you so desire.
· Jumping Minds Ink Gestures – a plug in for Word 2003 that allows you to apply formatting and corrections to word documents with the pen.
· Tablet Enhancements for Outlook – commonly known as TEO version 3 is currently in beta. TEO is a plug in for Outlook 2003 that ink enables common tasks, such as creating tasks, adding contacts, creating appointments and the like.
There are also more and more developers who are aware of the Tablet as a mobile PC platform option. This is leading to more developers writing point solutions and line of business applications for the Tablet PC.
The marginal cost of a tablet over a laptop is decreasing
There use to be a significant price premium for a Tablet PC over a traditional laptop. It is still the case that a Tablet PC is more expensive than an equivalent laptop, but not by as much.
A person shopping for a laptop may look at a similar tablet and think “would I be willing to pay $x more to get some additional features and flexibility?” As the differential decreases more consumers and businesses may be finding that they can justify the additional cost where perhaps they could not before.
Awareness is on the rise
Like developers, users are becoming more aware that the Tablet PC exists as a mobile option. As more people become aware of the tablet more people will buy them.
The lines are being erased (or at least blurred)
This is an interesting one. With Windows Vista “Tablet Edition” will cease to exist. Several SKUs of Vista will simply support tablet features if installed on tablet hardware. Indeed Tablet Features is simply a Windows Component that you can add via the control panel. If you look at the range of devices available today a remove the OS distinction, there are several devices that could use tablet features. For example the Sony U range and the Itronix GoBook III both include touch screens. If they were running Vista they could use ink.
Today you can group mobile computers running XP into three broad categories. On one end of the scale is the traditional laptop. Down the other end of the scale is the slate Tablet PC. In the middle somewhere are the convertible tablets. Right now there are not really any gray areas as the laptops run Windows XP and the slate and convertible tablets run Windows XP Tablet Edition. When Windows Vista ships there will not be three distinct categories as there are now. Instead there will be a continuum with devices at all points along the scale. Some examples of this have already begun to surface. For Example the Itronix GoBook III is a laptop with a touch screen and as such would rest between a traditional laptop and a convertible tablet. Similarly the concept device Toshiba had on show at CES this year was a convertible tablet with a removable screen. The screen could be removed, but it could not operate independently. Therefore this device would rest somewhere between a convertible tablet and a slate tablet.
Bringing it all together
Each of the above points is important in its own right, but taken together there effect will be much more dramatic. To put it in a nutshell it can be summed up like this. More computer users are becoming mobile computer users. Among this growing mobile segment a greater percentage are aware of the tablet as on option. If they do consider the tablet option they are more likely to find a device that suits their needs and because there is more software there is more they can do with a tablet that they can’t do with other devices. They will also find that there are more places that they can use and charge their tablet, meaning that they can stay in the field longer. This is further enhanced by the extended battery life now available. All this and the premium the user is going to pay is less than it has ever been before. Is it tablet time? You bet.