Keep taking the Tablets

Does Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates really believe his company’s Tablet PC still has the potential to be the world’s dominant computer design?

That’s what he told an audience in Tokyo earlier this week.

Of course, a Tablet PC revival is possible. It wouldn’t be the first time a technology came back from the dead – Apple’s Macintosh did the Lazarus thing.

But the track record for tablet-style computers is not encouraging. And, while he is often on the money elsewhere, in this department, Gates looks like a mug punter.

In 2001, when he demonstrated the first Tablet PC units in Las Vegas, Gates said the pen-based slate-style machines would become America’s dominant computer format within five years.

Four years on, even if we interpret the numbers generously, they don’t appear to account for quite 2 percent of the market. There are a few specialist niches where tablets do rather well; mainly medicine and insurance, but they don’t even come remotely close to dominating any notable sector.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has used a Tablet PC.

Wading through treacle
Although they were physically impressive, with their twisting screens and lightweight formats, the first models were both hideously expensive and grossly under-powered.

The handwriting recognition worked well enough in theory, but in practice was so slow that users had to put up with a frustrating wading-through-treacle experience.

Since then we’ve been through three or four hardware generations and at least one major software refresh. Things are dramatically better today, but Tablets remain unsatisfying. And they are still expensive.

That’s not a problem for the world’s richest man, but when Joe Public can buy four entry-level notebooks for the price of a Tablet, the return on investment doesn’t exactly look compelling for non-specialist users.

Remember the Slate?
The Tablet wasn’t Microsoft’s first unsuccessful foray into pen-based computing. A decade earlier, the company developed a product with a removable keyboard that was sometimes known as the Slate. It was also a dog. In fact, it appears to have been painted out of history in much the same way Stalin’s rivals were deleted from Soviet-era official photographs.

You’d think by now the message should have got through to Microsoft’s top brass that consumers and businesses aren’t exactly falling over themselves to buy overpriced handwriting recognition products. Outside of those few vertical markets and the odd geek enclave pen computing remains a failed concept.

All of which is a huge pity for resellers; implementing pen-based computing often requires a fair amount of added value.

While the Tablet PC is unlikely to become a mass-market product, there is still plenty of untapped potential to use them in conjunction with certain applications. ERP and CRM are two obvious candidates, as is anything that is list or form-based. But then, handheld computers like the Palm or iPaq might be a more appropriate way of getting the same functionality.