Tablet PCs and the enterprise

Tablet PCs, defined as portable PCs featuring electronic pen input instead of or sometimes as well as a standard keyboard, are back in the news again.

Rumours are currently circulating that PC maker Dell is about to launch a tablet model early next year. Dell is one of the few major laptop vendors never to have ventured into the tablet market, regarding it as too much of a niche in the overall mobile computing scene.

With Microsoft readying the Vista operating system for shipment, with the handwriting recognition capabilities of its Windows XP Tablet PC software now enhanced and built-in, Dell has apparently decided to rethink.

Thanks to Vista, says Microsoft, a Tablet PC will now be able to better recognise a user's writing thanks to new features integrated right into the heart of the OS.

It seems timely therefore to take a look at where the Tablet PC fits into today's enterprise, and examine where it adds value over and above more mainstream portable hardware. We look at some of the uses tablets are typically put to, the types of tablet available, the technologies they use to connect to corporate networks and the ways in which they can be integrated into an over all mobile armoury.

A flashy gimmick?

To many, tablet PCs are a flashy gimmick - a device with most of the attributes of a straightforward PC but with a touch screen attached so that the user can input graphics or handwriting with a pen.

There are, it should be noted, two types of Tablet PC - slate and convertible. Slates are lightweight, slim and do not have a permanent keyboard attached. Convertible tablets have an attached keyboard and look like a conventional laptop, with a screen that can be rotated to lay flat over the keyboard.

The traditional application of the slate type has been field operatives wanting to save time on keying data without sacrificing full PC functionality, applications and performance, while the convertible type is suited for small-scale presentations and demonstrations away from the typical office environment.

However, does either type really differ from other classes of mobile device? Do Tablet PCs fill the gap when other portable devices fail to do the job?

"I think many businesses labour under a misconception about what tablets deliver, with many considering them corporate jewellery," says Andrew Toal, business development manager with Motion Computing, a maker of tablet devices. "The tablet has suffered from a 'many things to many people' image, but I'd argue that it's very useful in certain applications. You don't always want to carry a full laptop if you're out of the office all day, and there are many applications where writing with a pen is more appropriate than a keyboard."

Toal points out that as a close cousin of the laptop, the Tablet PC has sometimes been deployed as a kind of laptop substitute, but with mixed results. "I think a lot depends on whether the manufacturer has designed a tablet from scratch or taken a laptop design and added some tablet features," he says.

As well as distinguishing a Tablet PC from a conventional laptop, Toal is also at pains to say that a Tablet PC is more than a scaled up PDA: "A PDA has a subset of a PC's data and OS, but a tablet is usually a full PC."

Motion only makes slate models, says Motion's Toal: "No keyboard means a longer battery life. Slates are very much for in-the-field work, where you need to hold and carry it the whole time.

Where do tablets fit in?

Tablets, argue their manufacturers, provide full-strength computing in a form factor ideal for working on-the-go.

Healthcare and education are typical tablet applications. With ink and handwriting-recognition capabilities, notes captured in the field or forms filled out at a patient's bedside are converted to text and saved to the tablet PC.

"Pen and paper are OK, but quite expensive to process and use over a period," says Toal. "Changing to tablets can often save money. Insurance companies, local government offices, anywhere where pen and paper still rule could use tablets."

To identify who in your organisation could benefit most from a tablet, you need to consider which of your employees regularly interacts out of the office with customers using a computing device, giving one-on-one presentations perhaps or filling out forms. Many people in these roles favour tablet PCs on the basis that they create less of a barrier between salesperson and customer, as laptops and desktops can do.

"I ran a market research company in Queensland, Australia for a number of years," says research professional Nick Parfitt.

"I got an NEC tablet three years ago rather than a laptop mainly because you are able to talk to people in in-depth interviews without the size of the device intruding between you and the respondent, and also because in Queensland's sometimes harsh climate with dust, high humidity and so on, it was easier to protect the device."Choosing the right product

As with any computing device, it is important to determine what level of processing power and memory will be appropriate for your workforce. Tablet PCs are full-strength computing devices, and have processing capabilities and memory levels to run multiple applications simultaneously, and store programs and documents the mobile professional needs on a daily basis.

Tablet PCs are made in a range of sizes with a variety of features that enhance mobility, including Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet and Wi-Fi capabilities, as well as IrDA ports, and up to eight hours of battery life. In addition, for mobile workers who spend much of their time outdoors, it is important to find a screen that can be seen clearly in direct sunlight.

"Tablet PCs are compatible with many major operating systems and applications," says Toal. "However, businesses using custom applications may have to update them to take full advantage of tablet PC features."

But you needn't associate tablets with expensive bespoke software. Microsoft says that Vista will be geared to run 'out of the box' with tablet PCs, even ones with moderate specifications like a 1Ghz CPU and as little as 512Mb of RAM.

Tougher than laptops?

Durability is often but not always crucial when dealing with a mobile workforce. It's therefore important to consider the field environment the tablet will be exposed to. Do employees need a rugged tablet that can withstand work environments such as construction sites, or do they simply need a tablet with a high level of durability to withstand everyday use and the occasional bump or drop?

"Is the average tablet a cannonball breaker?" says Toal. "No, but it should cope well with a bit more attrition that a standard laptop. It's built to be grabbed."

Although primarily associated with outdoor use, the tablet is also the preferred format for many indoor mobile tasks where a mobile device will not spend all its time on a flat surface. This includes classrooms where the user needs to be able to hold the device with one hand only for long periods.

Though the tablet PC is an ultra-mobile tool, solutions including docks and keyboards means the tablet can transition from the field to an office environment.

Wireless networking is now taking tablet PCs into new areas of the business, with mobile professionals uploading vital information from the field and working more efficiently on the road by keeping in touch with head office.

Getting users on board

For many IT managers, the Tablet PC is the device and form factor that time forgot. Certainly they haven't been as heavily marketed as laptops, PDAs, smartphones or other mobile devices, and are consequently less in demand with the rank and file of employees. Few feel cool carrying a tablet in a way they do carrying the latest BlackBerry model.

Any tablet PC you buy will need to be user-friendly and intuitive, or it may meet user resistance. As with most new implementations, training is important to ensure that each member of the workforce is getting the best tablet experience. This is particularly the case where the tablet user is in a role where they may be unfamiliar with day to day PC use of any kind, like in the warehouse where proprietary stand-alone handheld devices have traditionally ruled.

The whole point of mobile technology is to allow users to spend more time at the coalface of whatever they do, and less in the office worrying about admin. Arguably the tablet, with its light weight, is only rivalled by the PDA for being able to go almost anywhere, taking what used to be office-bound tasks into remote environments.

Not loved by everyone

As we've already said, tablets have enjoyed a mixed reputation with users. There are many happy tablet users. But there are plenty of people who consider that a tablet can do nothing that a laptop can't do just as well if not better. It seems only fair to consider this viewpoint in this last part of the article."I've never been a fan," says Stewart Hayward, commercial director with systems supplier WStore. "Since Compaq brought the TC1000 to

market I've never understood it. I'll grudgingly accept medicine as a

possible use, though I still think that unless you're planning on giving

every nurse and doctor a tablet, they'll still stick to paper and centralised computers."

Hayward also questions whether handwriting recognition apps are all that common. "Have you ever seen anyone use it for anything other than demonstration?" he asks. "Anyone passed you any electronic

documents with handwritten notes or markups recently?"

Most systems have perfectly good and far more legible alternatives to highlight changes, he argues.

Tablets may well remain niche products despite Microsoft's efforts to bring pen input into the mainstream. But as they become easier to use, then they will no doubt remain popular within those niches.