Microsoft leads collective tablet push

12 Nov 2002

A year is a long time in technology but there was something strangely familiar about Microsoft’s opening address at last week’s official launch of the tablet PC in Ireland. Country manager Joe Macri proclaimed that the mobile computing revolution was upon us and he had the statistics to prove it.

By 2003, 60pc of the Fortune 1,000 will deploy a mobile application server, said Gartner. In five years most portable PCs will be tablet PCs, said Microsoft.

The last claim echoed Bill Gates from 12 months ago when he made the headlines for pitching tablet PCs centre stage, predicting that they will outsell conventional computers within five years. That the new statistic was significantly more modest — domination of the portable market rather than the whole market — said a lot about the shifting sands that greet the arrival of the new device.

Maintaining his policy of being more open with Irish IT partners, Joe Macri had invited Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and Intel to a roundtable discussion with the media at a launch that “represented the culmination of 10 years of R&D”.

“We’ve driven the software side, but there’s been a lot of development on the hardware,” said Macri, managing to establish a large slice of credit for the tablet concept without actually stealing the moment entirely.

What became apparent was that while all the attendants shared the same agenda, pushing product that each had helped develop, their ultimate goals were slightly different.

Mindful of the need to maintain a buoyant laptop business, HP’s Martin Murphy wouldn’t put his name under the Microsoft five-year plan for portable domination of the laptop space. The company’s snazzy Compaq T1000 is aimed at specialist markets, field workers who have had little inclination to use a PC until now. He stated clearly that tablets were “to grow the market” and not a laptop replacement.

Fujitsu-Siemens — not present at the Microsoft launch — seems to be pursuing a similar line to HP. A day later it would unveil its Stylistic, weighing in at just 1.48kg, the slightest package of the bunch, sharing the dimensions of an A4 sheet of paper.

By contrast, Oliver Cary, country development manager for Toshiba, made it clear that his company was putting much greater store behind the tablet concept. Its Protégé 3500 is being sold as a three-in-one device. The idea is that the detachable screen and sturdy keyboard effectively make it a versatile hybrid: a desktop, a laptop and a portable tablet.

For his part, Macri talked of the “digital decade” and the part the tablet was destined to play in it. Putting the launch in the broader context of computing he looked back at the evolution of the PC to the point where it has arrived at 500 million installed around the globe. Closer to home he observed that there were now 1.5 million in the 32 counties.

“It wasn’t Windows or Intel that drove it,” he said, “but the spreadsheet and the word document — the killer applications.”

He went on to argue that the killer application of the last few years was email. But what next? With the tablet, he believes, we are entering a new era of personal computing with personal computers that will be driven by very specific applications meeting the specialist requirements of end users. It was third part companies such as Siebel and SAP that would take the tablet concept and run with it.

Along with the tablet edition of Windows XP Microsoft was understandably keen to push Ink, the software that provides a digital alternative to pen and paper. “If it turns out to be just a laptop replacement it won’t be doing justice to Ink,” said Microsoft’s technical architect, Ian Taylor.

All agreed that it was early days for the tablet. Yes, they would get lighter, battery performance would improve and the various tools are certain to evolve. There was even some muttered agreement from an Accenture analyst that a new product category could be confusing for customers. It might be hard to persuade them that there is a gap big enough for a missing link between PDAs (personal digital assistants) and laptops.

With the exception of Toshiba and its upbeat faith in the 3500 as a one-stop computer, the mood was cautious but optimistic. No one in the room, however, was being as cautious as Dell.

The irony is that the No. 1 computer company is only just planning to enter the PDA market and has no plans for tablets. The Irish IT heads smiled nervously at the suggestion that we’d only know that the new computers had taken off when Dell stepped into the market.