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Digital ink is the 'gee-whiz' in tablet PCs

For now, technology in tablet PCs that lets companies transmit digital signatures is the key selling point for the mobile device.

Thanks to Microsoft's big push of the tablet PC at last month's PC Expo in New York, these devices are getting a lot of buzz, but the reality is they will only show up in small numbers over the next few years.

Leslie Fiering, vice president of mobile computing for the Stamford, Conn., research firm Gartner Inc., said that the tablet PC is not so much a hardware announcement as it is a software announcement. What's new, she said, is not the device itself, which is a subnotebook-sized rectangular computing device with a touch sensitive screen. These devices have been around for some time for field workers and others.

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What's new is the digital ink.

Digital ink allows a user to write directly on the device with a stylus. That's a big plus for Dave Methot, a contract manager with Bechtel National Inc. Methot, whose company is the government contracting arm of construction giant Bechtel Corp., said that the handwriting function works very well. "My handwriting on paper and on the tablet is identical. You wouldn't notice the difference," he said.

The tablets will be available from manufacturers such as Acer, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba and range in price from $1,700 to $2,500.

For the tablet PC, Microsoft has expanded the Windows XP Pro operating system, adding digital ink and handwriting recognition into the mix. When users write on the tablet, handwriting recognition happens automatically in the background. Users can save handwritten notes and then search for them by keyword because much of those notes are saved as text, although users don't need to turn on the handwriting-recognition feature.

That handwriting functionality is the primary reason why the tablet appeals to Methot. Right now, the electronic transfer and signing of contracts is a laborious process because it is hard to generate electronic signatures. Contracts must be e-mailed, printed, signed, then faxed or mailed. It is a very inefficient process, he said.

With the tablet, all of that can happen without ever printing the document. A user can sign a contract, save it and e-mail it back. That will provide a productivity boost, Methot said.

Though Methot never takes his laptop into meetings because he said it is considered rude to type in meetings, he does bring his tablet. With it, he can take electronic notes as unobtrusively as writing on paper, and he can access relevant files.

But it may take some time before your average corporate employee is using a tablet PC, said Roger Kay, director of client computing for the Framingham, Mass., research firm International Data Corp. "I think of this as executive jewelry," he said. It is expensive, small, high functioning, but without too much battery life. It is essentially a replacement for a subnotebook, but not a replacement for a PC.

Kay said it will take three years for sales of the device to pick up. In the meantime, it is likely that tablets will remain where they have always found a home: in verticals such as public safety, health care, education and field force. As application developers come up with more uses for digital ink, as the ink features are better integrated into Microsoft Office, and as prices come down, the devices will become more useful and the market will be more likely to grow, Fiering said.

While tablet PCs are unlikely to flood through corporate doors next year, they are something that IT managers in many industries will need to address because a small subset of users can benefit from these devices. IT departments will have a few things to keep in mind as they are deployed.

Kelly Berschauer, senior product manager for the tablet PC at Microsoft, said that beta testers like Bechtel have been reporting that it takes users about three to four days to become comfortable using the stylus and writing on the device. So IT departments can't expect to simply drop the device off on employees' desks. It will take some training.

The devices run on Windows XP Pro, so they should be easy to integrate into existing systems, and employees should be familiar with how the tablet OS works.

Fiering said that tablets need to be managed in much the way that notebooks with wireless capability are managed. Most of these devices are shipped with 802.11b cards and many can also use wireless WAN modems. Security is a concern both in transmitting and receiving data and in the event that a device is lost or stolen.

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