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Mobile Trends: Is the tablet's time here?

As the market begins to see new models that sport advanced features and improved performance, one analyst says tablets are about to go mainstream.

It was approximately one year ago when the first tablet PCs hit the market. Amid great fanfare, Microsoft boasted that, with its new operating system, the hybrid breed of portable computers, which allow users to write on the screen with a stylus, would soon supplant all other enterprise PCs.

With the new technological advances offered by the latest generation of tablet PCs and heavy competition among vendors, industry observers say that now could be the time to invest in tablet PCs.

Michael Gartenberg, a research director with Jupiter Research in New York, said that, of IT executives surveyed last year by his firm, 21% were testing tablet PCs. Since then, interest has only increased, he said.

"Last year was a good time to begin the pilot process, and [companies] can still go ahead and do that this year. Now, I think we'll see a lot of those pilot projects turn into mainstream usage," Gartenberg said.

Gartenberg said vendors such as Toshiba Corp. and Acer Inc. are refreshing their product lines, and they'll be making a number of new models available between now and the end of the year.

Hewlett-Packard Co. is also launching a new line of tablets. Mark Baerenstecher, HP's worldwide product manager for tablet PCs, said the company's TC1100 line, announced last week, offers improved performance and extended battery life over previous models. He added that because the company's models rely on a variety of Intel processors, as well as many of the same internal components used in its standard notebooks, HP is able to make its tablets more affordable than before.

Baerenstecher said customers are primarily interested in functionality, which is why HP's tablet is designed for use not only as a tablet, but also as a notebook and desktop computer.

"[Customers] want to work in their offices with ergonomic keyboards and monitors, and also grab the system out of a docking station and go, not wait for it to undock and worry about their data being lost," he said. "Mobility is about computers that are thinner and lighter, but it's also about taking what you're used to in the office out on the road."

Gartenberg said advances in software are making tablet PCs a better investment. For instance, he said, Microsoft's upcoming Office 2003 productivity suite will enable tablet users to natively mark up Word and Excel documents. "As people become more aware of these types of apps and what's available to them, that's going to drive the market," he said.

But the tablet PC picture isn't perfect. Research firm International Data Corp. doesn't expect significant increases in tablet shipments until 2005. One publication recently reported that Acer, one of Microsoft's key tablet PC supporters, is losing money on its tablet line. Acer was unavailable for comment for this story.

"There's been press about other manufacturers not doing well with their tablets, but we're very content with what we've done," Baerenstecher said, though he declined to offer specific sales figures.

Regardless, Gartenberg said that even though they are still at a relatively early stage in their development, tablets have tremendous potential, especially for retaining meeting notes, which often get lost when traditional paper notepads are used.

"They'll find their niche, but I don't think they'll supersede notebooks," Gartenberg said. "I do think there's growth, but I don't think it's as wild or robust as some forecast."


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