We have written about Tablet PCs before, and have waxed enthusiastically about how these systems will be warmly received by field and sales force people who spend a lot of time each day dealing with paper forms and quick checklist-type data entry. We also think systems of this type will find a modest niche among:
- Students, who can use it to scribble class notes and make notations virtual text books.
- Executives, who are looking for a flexible and light second PC, or need a system that can be used for quick presentations on the road and to read and respond to email messages while traveling.
- Healthcare professionals, since Tablet PCs closely duplicate the ever-present charts within a hospital setting and can easily be carried and wireless updated with the latest patient information.
- Field force workers, because Tablet PCs most closely duplicate the "pen and paper" forms-filling chores that are a part of their daily job routines.
I don't know about you, but most people perform this demo song-and-dance for about 30 seconds and then head straight to more exciting systems such as the Sony Vaio or Apple Computer Notebooks (if only to see just how big the 14.1-inch display is in relation to Mini-Me in those television commercials). Sure, the Tablet PCs are light and innovative and different. But, do I really want to spend all that money for an electronic notepad?
The price of portability
This brings us to our next criticism of Tablet PCs in general, the cost. With some prices ranging from $2,500 - $3,000 or more, most of these systems are just too expensive to rationalize it as a second computer purchase. They also seem less durable than your average clamshell-design notebook computer, require you to carry more baggage if you do want an external keyboard, and are a bit more finicky when it comes to screen resolution and viewing angles -- especially in daylight conditions.
We know this sounds pretty negative, but in reality we are actually big fans of Tablet PCs. In fact, we think many companies will ultimately switch from smaller handheld systems to "medium format" Tablet PC systems as the latter systems become more flexible, affordable and wireless-enabled. In the end, a larger screen just makes more sense when you are a field worker filling in electronic forms, a doctor making notations in a patient's chart, or a sales person going over a purchase order with a customer. It makes perfect sense, then, not to sell these systems in the general market, but market them primarily through specific business and industry segment channels. They should also be pre-packaged and formatted with the appropriate software for these channels and business segments.
All of this is pretty obvious, although we were a bit worried after meeting recently with Motion Computing, Inc. a relative newcomer to the field that will be announcing today a Tablet PC based on Intel Corp.'s innovative Centrino wireless chipset. We were very impressed with the new M1300 Tablet PC system, as well as the capabilities of the Centrino chipset that reportedly delivers a 25-30% performance improvement over early chips. We also like the company's marketing strategy, which initially concentrates on key industry segments like healthcare and education.
We almost choked on our penne pasta lunch, however, when CEO Scott Eckert mentioned that these systems will also target so-called "bed surfers" or those people who will use it as a wireless window to casually surf the Web. Great term, but bad marketing concept, since we feel these people would much rather uses a notebook computer to dash off a quick message and cruise the Web rather than juggle detachable keyboards and poke around with a stylus.
That being said, let us tell you what we like about the Motion M1300 computer and the primary marketing strategy that is behind it. As mentioned earlier, the system is based on the very cool Intel Centrino chipset, which is specifically designed for wireless mobility. The Centrino architecture consists of an Intel Pentium M 900MHz ultra-low voltage (ULV) processor, an Intel 855 graphics chipset, and an integrated 802.11b wireless networking capability. All of these components work together to balance the graphics and wireless communications loads, relieving the burden from the central processor and improving the overall battery life. The chipset and supportive software also works to adjust operating voltage and clock speeds in response to the software's demand for computing resources.
Feedback up front
Motion is in the process of finding out just how much of a an improvement Centrino delivers in terms of battery life, although initial usability studies indicate an average 3-4 hours of operational time during wireless operation -- not bad when you consider just how much power a plug-in PCMCIA card drains from your typical laptop. The system does offer a 10-15% improvement in battery life over the M1200 system, however.
The new M1300 is a lot sleeker and better designed than the company's flagship M1200, which debuted last year. Motion incorporated a lot of design changes into the M1300, based on suggestions and feedback from users within four primary target market segments: Healthcare, higher education, government and field automation. These changes included alterations in the system's casing, screen display, graphics capability (again, thanks to the Centrino chipset), and internal cooling system.
Let's start with improvements in the M1300's outer structure. Whereas the M1200 has a very durable plastic alloy skin, akin to that of most notebook computers nowadays, the M1300 sports a very slick magnesium alloy composite that is very rugged and resists the little dings and scratches that inevitably result from everyday use. This alloy is also much lighter than previous composites, which helps with the overall weight of the system. The casing of the M1300 is also bracketed with rubberized grips that help users keep a tight hold on their systems, which is important as field workers bound from trucks and run through offices to collect information and gather approval signatures on virtual worksheets. Finally, the M1300 employs "nano-paint" technology, which essentially bonds the color of the system right into the magnesium casing itself, which also tends to reduce the visibility of scratches and scuffs.
The M1300's 12.1-inch LCD TFT display is the similar to that of the M1200, and is supplemented with an acrylic sheet that not only protects the LCD surface from scratches, but also eliminates the "pooling" effect that is common to all LCD displays when pressure is applied by fingers or stylus. What we really like, though, is how quickly the M1300's image switches from landscape to portrait mode and back again, primarily due to the inherent capabilities of the Centrino chip architecture.
One of the more significant improvements of the M1300, however, is the elimination of that noise and annoying cooling fan that is a common element in most portable systems and an increasing liability in Tablet PCs. The Motion system uses a single cooling vent and a series of well-placed "heat spreaders" to disperse the heat and cool the system's internal parts -- although the Intel Centrino does not really present any kind of a heat problem.
Other features of the M1300 Tablet PC include a 20G-byte hard drive (upgradeable to 60G bytes); 25gM bytes of internal memory (upgradeable to 1G bytes); an external keyboard, AC adapter, and assorted software. The system also comes with a silly little plastic device -- officially called the M-Series Desktop Stand -- that looks like the fold-out plate holder you might find in your grandmother's hutch. CEO Eckert tells us it was thrown in as a very mobile extra for executives who wanted a way to prop up their M1300 systems when traveling.
A hunch about hutches
However, we think it is pretty chintzy, and would seem to be a risky way to balance a computer priced at more than $2,000. Some kind of stand that pops up from the underside or back of the detachable keyboard might be a better solution. Thankfully, Motion does offer a very sturdy docking station -- called the M-Series FlexDock -- which not only provides rock-steady support, but offer the added benefit of three USB ports, IEEE 1394 and RJ45 connectors, speaker and microphone jacks, and a VGA port.
While Motion has only been around since late last year, the company claims it is already one of the top five Tablet PC makers -- most likely because the field is not that crowded yet and total market shipments have thus far been a bit modest. Motion does have a lot working in its favor, though, not the least of which is its stellar management and executive team that mainly consists of ex-Dell Computer employees who helped to establish and build that company. In fact, CEO Scott Eckert developed and managed Dell's highly successful Internet sales program, which helped define that company's marketing strategy and resulted in millions of dollars worth of sales each day.
Motion's executives have a keen sense of the value of selling Tablet PCs through the channel, and have quickly signed more than 70 resellers and vertical marketers who intimately know their respective business segments. The company has also actively established early beta programs to inject their systems into markets that show strong potential. For example, Motion now has active beat programs established at Case Western University, MIT and the University of Texas. The company is also looking at European and Asian markets, and in fact is coordinating the launch of the M1300 in the U.S. with a similar debut today in the United Kingdom.
So, just what don't we like about the M1300? Not much, really, at least in terms of the current state of Tablet PCs. However, we are still bothered by the price tag, which is just over $2,000 for the base M1300 model and close to $3,000 with al the bells and whistles. We think a better pricing structure for executive class Tablet PCs is about $1,800, while those aimed at the consumer market should be priced from $1,200 to $1,500. After all, these may not be primary system buys, despite what Eckert and his crew passionately believe.
Also, for all their capabilities and increasing power, systems of this type are still very solutions-dependent, meaning they will be purchased by companies to perform specific predetermined tasks and not looked at as general purpose systems (as is the case with notebook computers). So, while manufacturers like Motion Computing can effectively raise the bar in terms of using new design and electronics technology, it is the applications developers and channel marketers who will ultimately determine the success or failure of Tablet PCs in that great mainstream of information processing solutions.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, MA based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to www.shorelineresearch.com.