Tablet PC, The

tablet PC, The

Ashenhurst, John

SOUND INTERNET SOLUTIONS

Tablet PC takes all that’s great about notebook PCs and adds features to improve mobile computing

Years ago at Comdex in Las Vegas, I watched a Microsoft presentation of a “clipboard” or “slate” type PC-something you would hold across one arm while using a stylus (pen with no ink) to navigate and write on the screen. You didn’t need a keyboard. The presentation showed how an insurance adjuster could walk around a damaged vehicle, tap in information, and get an immediate, accurate estimate from his or her slate computer. Not a bad idea, if it worked, but by-and-large the technology did not catch on in a big way. The devices were too heavy, handwriting recognition too poor, wireless communication non-existent, and the Internet undiscovered.

While slate PCs didn’t take off, their smaller cousinsPDAs (personal digital assistants–did and are used by millions to maintain contact information and calendars and sometimes to run small footprint applications. The latest versions include wireless telephones and digital cameras. I know many people who won’t leave home without their PDAs. I have one and have tried several times to make myself use it but it’s just another thing to have to carry around, worry about, and synchronize with my notebook computer-so it sits in its box.

What I’d rather have is one real PC that I can use in three ways: as a PDA (hold in my hand or over my arm and write on/tap into); as a portable, wireless, withkeyboard notebook; and as a networked desktop. One computer, one set of software, one place to keep everything.

Over the last five years, Fujitsu, for one, has continued to work on and perfect the hardware for slate computers and has sold them into special needs markets, where fullfunction, light-weight, keyboard-less PCs are needed. Powerful batteries are now much lighter, high capacity disk drives tiny, screen technology much improved, reliable wireless mainstream, and the Internet is available to carry communications anywhere. So the hardware problems that limited the initial slate PCs have been solved. That leaves software issues.

Never giving up on its vision for a slate computer, Microsoft spent three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars developing operating system extensions and a standard specification against which manufacturers could build a new generation of PCs. The result is the Tablet PC, now built and marketed by a dozen PC manufacturers, including Compaq (but not Dell or IBM).

The Tablet PC uses a superset of Microsoft’s XP operating system and can run, without modification, any software that runs on a regular PC with XP. However, that software may not be able to take advantage of the Tablet PC extensions-especially slate-related functions. Perhaps the most significant Tablet PC extension is what Microsoft calls Ink.

Ink allows the user to write or print on the screen and then store notes for later retrieval-as well as send them to others. Ink is interesting because XP automatically converts the writing into words and indexes them-while retaining and continuing to show the writing. That allows you to take notes, store them and then search and recall a section by its content later. Tablet PC handwriting recognition means that onscreen written-in forms could go to a database-without rekeying, and handwriting could become formal correspondence without typing. Microsoft has been careful to downplay handwriting recognition expectations for Ink. It can’t read what you can’t read, but I was impressed with the demo I saw.

Tablet PCs come in two forms: an all-in-one (like a notebook computer) and a slate to which a keyboard and a stand for the screen can be added for desktop use. Prices range from about $2,000 to $2,500 and include everything good notebook computers do.

Tablets in agencies

The notebook computer-like version of the Tablet PC may be particularly relevant for insurance agency operations. It can be used exactly like a notebook computer, with traditional keyboard and touch pad-or the screen can be rotated 180 degrees, folded down on the keyboard (covering it) with the screen facing up. You can then put the unit on a desk, in your lap, or cradle it over your arm-and interact with it via a stylus as you would with a PDA. You can use it the way you would a conventional clipboard-except you’ve got a powerful computer that can do a great deal more.

So how can a Tablet PC computer prove to be relevant for agencies? First, by allowing an agency to be both completely digital as well as mobile (if only around the office). Many agencies have significantly reduced their reliance on paper-but handwritten notes, perhaps taken in meetings, are invisible to the computerized agency process. Were agency employees equipped with Tablet PCs, they could come to meetings with them, take notes by hand- and then have those notes permanently and conveniently available as Ink data.

But the real value of the Tablet PC is to producers. Most producers are not comfortable using a notebook computer during a sales call-except perhaps to do a PowerPoint presentation. The producer may be an inadequate typist and embarrassed at having to struggle with keyboard and touch pad. But even a power user isn’t likely to want to use a notebook computer during sales call discussions and information gathering. The noise of the keyboard, finger typing movements, and the way the screen intrudes into the space between the producer and the prospect all destroy the psychology of the sales process.

So many producers still take notes on yellow pads and fill in paper ACORD forms while talking with the prospect. That doesn’t interfere with the sales process, but it doesn’t advance the goal of agency efficiency either. Once back in the agency, the notes and forms may turn out to be incomplete-and in any case, someone must enter the gathered information into a computer-for rating, submission, and proposal purposes.

But what if a producer had a Tablet PC to use on his or her desk and to take on sales calls? The Tablet PC could be equipped with ACORD forms, risk analysis and management information, reference information, and quoting and other tools to facilitate the sales call process. If I were a producer, I’d want a Tablet PC. It would let me take advantage of technology on my terms-that is as a pad and pencil.

Caveats

Of course a few caveats are in order. When I discussed the Tablet PC with a Fujitsu representative, he pointed to inherent weaknesses in allin-one devices. The screen rotates 180 degrees so you can use it upright as a typical notebook screen/keyboard combination or with the screen reversed and closed over the keyboard as a slate. The weakness lies in the need for rotation. If you try to rotate the screen in the wrong direction, you’re likely to break it, and it’s entirely possible that some users will make that mistake-thus ruining their computers.

Fujitsu has avoided the rotation problem by making the screen/ computer, screen stand, and keyboard separate devices. When a traditional computer arrangement isn’t needed, the keyboard and stand can be left at the office. Fujitsu has a point, but dealing with three separate pieces could be a bother.

But even with hardware considerations out of the way, there are other issues. Though Microsoft has significantly improved its handwriting recognition software, it can’t read minds. You do have to write or print more deliberately than you would for human consumption. Microsoft isn’t pushing its recognition engine as a beall and end-all. It has a place in the scheme of things but Microsoft thinks that a full-screen, stylus-navigable, wireless PC with free-form Ink can be valuable for people who need highly portable computers that don’t require keyboards-even without perfect handwriting recognition.

A more serious concern, at least for now, is the lack of substantial insurance applications written for the Tablet PC. Though software engineers can retrofit some applications to be Tablet PC compatible (allowing stylus entry), retrofitted applications may not be able to take full advantage of Ink. And though many people have experience with stylus screen entry through PDAs, the larger, more complex space of a Tablet PC might cause unforeseen user difficulties.

Tablet PCs are very cool

On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that these Tablet PCs have the potential to usher in a whole new generation of technology, one that realizes some of the potential we’ve imagined over the years but haven’t seen because computer access is almost always by keyboard and mouse/touch pad. At least in some situations, stylus-on-screen makes more sense. The keyboard and mouse/touch pad aren’t always the ideal way to navigate and place data on the screen. It would make more sense to interact with the screen itself.

I’m eager to see what this industry can do with the Tablet PC. II doesn’t take much imagination to think of practical, currently unsatisfied uses. Perhaps we’ll see some this year.

The author

John Ashenhurst and his company, Sound Internet Strategy, provide information and analysis (through his Web site, www.soundingline.com consulting, Web site evaluation, and seminar services to independen agents and their trading partners. He can be reached at johnashenhurst@soundingline.com or (360) 376-1090.

Copyright Rough Notes Co., Inc. Jan 2003

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