Americans may be a sedentary lot, but not, it seems, at work. How else to explain the many efforts computer companies are making to satisfy the needs of the “mobile workforce”? Laptops and PDAs continue to shrink and get more powerful, cell phones are turning into multifunction devices, and tablet computing continues to attract new players along with the substantial efforts of old ones.
This summer, Microsoft will release a new version of the Windows operating system it developed expressly for tablet computers, one that promises a number of improvements to the tablet’s ability to “understand” handwriting and otherwise deal with pen-based input in more user-friendly ways (such as allowing handwritten notes to be embedded in Word documents and other applications). And new entrants to the tablet field will soon introduce cheaper, more-powerful machines that may essentially eliminate the premium that customers currently pay for the ability to use a pen as an input device and enjoy the greater portability of tablets.
Tablet computers come in two forms: slates, which have no keyboard and rely on a penlike pointer for input (think UPS delivery guy), and “convertibles,” which have a detachable keyboard and are often dockable on a desktop, making them particularly versatile but usually heavier than slates.
While tablet sales are currently dominated by familiar names (Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, Acer, and others), new companies hope to make a mark. Averatec will soon unveil a convertible model complete with optical disk drive and built-in wireless capabilities for $1,299. Motion Computing specializes in slate computers aimed at “highly mobile professionals” who need to walk and compute at the same time; field inspectors, health workers, and government employees are among its primary markets. Xybernaut Corp. builds tabletlike functionality into its arsenal of “wearable” computers; in one such application, an Irish company called Adwalker equips its marketing reps with computers and flat-panel touch-screen monitors and sends them out to music festivals and the like, where they conduct research, dispense coupons and other information, and provide an “out-of-home” customer experience to anyone lucky enough to encounter this mobile marvel.
Despite those new frontiers, tablet sales haven’t taken off, but the market may get a boost should a rumored Apple model appear later this year.
Ironically, pundits suggest that such a device, aimed at consumers, would allow them to control an array of home electronics without having to leave the couch.