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Your Replacement or Mine?

For desktop computers, something newish this way comes.

When asked about this shortcoming, Andrew Dixon, group marketing manager for Microsoft’s Tablet PC team, scoffed. “Sometimes it’s hard for you to recognize your own handwriting,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of work on handwriting-recognition technology, but it’s certainly not perfect.” And much of the software written for tablets doesn’t hinge on handwriting recognition, but simply on using the pen to point and click.

Despite some software imperfections, and the related difficulty of becoming comfortable with a pen interface whether the machine understands your writing or not, some companies are viewing the tablets exactly as the computer industry hoped they would: not as specialty devices, but as straight-on replacements for desktop PCs.

“It takes a couple of weeks to get used to using a pen instead of a mouse,” says Ed Sullivan, president of IBC, a distributor of industrial supplies and bearings. Based in Hartford, IBC is beginning to swap out its old PCs for tablet PCs. “We’ve got six in use now and more coming. We’ve changed our rotation of buying new PCs every three years to buying tablet PCs, so that everyone is working toward that technology,” he adds.

But Sullivan is in a decided minority. IDC reports that despite Microsoft’s marketing muscle (the software giant sees tablets as fertile ground for a special version of its Windows operating system), sales of tablet machines have yet to take off. “Tablets got a lot of support out of Microsoft’s backing,” says IDC’s Kay. “Some enterprises are evaluating them, but there’s not much pull for these machines.” He figures that tablet PC shipments have been “in the tens of thousands” since their announcement last fall.

That means that growth may depend in part on tablets offering more than just portability. Howard Kamerer, president and COO of Bothell, Washington-based network-equipment maker Allied Telesyn Inc., says that while “the tablet PCs give you the best of both worlds”—that is, the portability and computing power of a notebook plus the convenience of a pen-based system—what matters most are the specific software applications that take full advantage of those capabilities.

In his case, that means using a “brainstorming” application called MindManager, from Mindjet, a Larkspur, California, software company. The program enables people to scrawl their notes on the screen with a pen and then move them around or reorganize them any way they want, using the pen and various icons for commands.

While Kamerer admits that “tough economic times are not when companies have the money for a new technology, so mainstream use is going to take time,” he is nonetheless introducing the tablet PC to Allied. He plans to convert managers and project managers first and then roll out the machines to the company’s entire sales organization. “We’ll give people a choice—the tablet PC or the laptop,” he says. “I think a lot of them will want a tablet PC.”

Another tablet PC user is Richard Goldberg, chief technology officer at dataDOC Technologies Inc., a Chicago-based consulting firm that helps health-care companies with process improvement. He uses the tablet PC and MindManager software to visually map out clients’ processes. “The ability to map out processes visually in pen mode as we talk is phenomenal,” says Goldberg. Some physicians, he says, are starting to employ tablet PCs to chart patients’ records. “We are finally moving toward a computing device that truly allows the human input to be more natural,” he adds. “There’s no question that this is the next notebook PC, but adoption of this technology may not happen overnight.” That seems like an understatement, but if PC budgets pick up as Kay predicts, tablets may get serious attention as sensible PC replacements for any employees not completely deskbound, says Microsoft’s Dixon.

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