Is this the future of college computing? (The Tablet PC)(Cover Story).
"Our faculty members find them so distracting," says John Campbell, associate vice president for Instructional Computing Information Technology at the school. "Generally, technology in the academic environment is good, but it's amazing how many of our people say they're ready for something new."
At Purdue, that "something new" may be right around the corner. In an effort to integrate technologies that fit more discreetly into the classroom environment, administrators and officials in the school's IT department are planning to pilot as many as 1,000 brand-new devices in some classes this fall. They haven't settled on a particular product just yet, but they know their upcoming strategy will hinge on the tablet PC. Thanks to a technology known as "digital ink," tablet PCs combine the convenience of notebook computers with the ease of pen and paper, wrapping both together in devices that are not much bigger than this magazine. They're portable, durable, and interactive, and most models come ready for wireless networking out of the box. What's more, unlike personal digital assistants and pocket PCs, tablet technology runs on a standard operating system, enabling users to swap files from their tablets to their desktops and back again, without ever having to convert file formats.
Still the devices aren't without their detractors; citing the tablet's high price point and newfangled touch-screen interface, industry analysts say they're skeptical the tablet PC will have any significant mass-market impact on the academic environment until it becomes more affordable for people to sample. Nevertheless, on college and university campuses across the country, people are talking tablets, and students, professors, technologists, and administrators alike tout the devices as the "next generation" of computers.
"Two years from now, I wouldn't be surprised if this technology was more the norm than the exception," says Jim Bottum, Purdue's CIO. "Who knows? Soon enough, every notebook in the academic world could be a tablet."
How It Works
Most original equipment manufacturers (0EMs) launched their tablet PC products at the end of last year, but actually, the technology behind tablet PCs has been around longer than Web browsers. Fujitsu (www.fujitsu.com), for example, has been selling the technology since the early 1990s to the U.S. medical insurance, and manufacturing industries, and other, more local vendors have sold similar iterations for the last five years. Other early products, too, were all about digital ink: abandoned pen-and-tablet computing precursors include Apple, General Magic, and Grid.
At the heart of current tablet technology lie a touch-screen interface and a stylus-like digital pen, which enables users to navigate and interact with the devices without the help of a mouse. Each of the tablet PCs also runs Microsoft Windows XP Tablet Edition, which lets users "write" on the screen in several ways:
* Via the "Journal" function, a utility whose interface resembles a legal pad and simulates writing with "digital ink" on paper.
* Within the "Tablet Input Panel," a small. window that stretches across the width of the display, designed to emulate the pen-input window on a PDA screen.
* Via additional pen-enabled applications from vendors such as Corel Corp. (www.corel.com), FranklinCovey (www .franklincovey.com), and Pen&Internet LLC (www.penandinternet.com), all of which allow users to draw right into pre-existing files of every kind, capturing the resulting images as separate and distinct files.
Tablet PCs come in two basic designs: "slate" devices with detachable or wireless keyboards, and "convertible" devices that mimic the clamshell design of notebook computers, only with displays that swivel 360 degrees and can close over the keyboard, face up. Most of the slate devices--which resemble clipboards without the clips--come available with docking stations so users can work on them as they would work on a desktop computer. With the convertible devices such stations are not necessary, since the display is part of the device as a whole. Still, many of these devices include connecting ports to display tablet output to an external monitor.
"These products are designed to conform to however you decide you want to use them," says Tim Tiscornia, manager of mobility products for Microsoft's Education Solutions Group (www.microsoft.com). "Essentially, that's the whole idea: They're meant to make everything convenient."
Convenience is the name of the game for Rutledge Ellis-Behnke, a Brain and Cognitive Sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who utilizes the Compaq TC1000 tablet from Hewlett Packard (www.hp.com) to assist him in his research on nerve regeneration. Ellis-Behnke says that when he's hunched over a microscope in the lab, jotting down notes on his tablet is just as easy as jotting down notes on paper--only with the tablet, he can save them along with other electronic files. He says he also uses his tablet to help him with lectures: With a special overhead projection accessory, Ellis-Behnke transposes the display image onto a wall screen, uses his digital pen to add emphasis that everyone can see, then e-mails students the updated notes at the end of class.
At the Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, Professor Tom Marino uses his Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000 tablet for a similar purpose. Marino also projects the image from his tablet onto a wall screen, but says that he uses Corel's Grafigo software to add diagrams and flowcharts to his notes, in real time. Like Ellis-Behnke, with the flick of his digital pen, Marino then e-mails these notes to students while they're sitting there in front of him--a good strategy to prevent students from saying they never received information discussed during lecture. When he's not incorporating the device into his anatomy and cell biology lectures, Marino says he utilizes the tablet's Journal function to schedule personal appointments and jot down helpful reminders.
"Sometimes I'll use it just to write myself notes," he quips. "It's certainty easier than opening up [a word processing program], and spending the time to type whatever you need to record."
Granted, adoption is slower among professors at most other schools, but gradually, more and more educators are giving tablets a try. At some IHEs, students are even getting in on the act: In Illinois, at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, first-year graduate student Chris O'Toole has eschewed the school-sponsored laptop purchase program and taken the plunge with a tablet PC. O'Toole owns the Acer (www.acer.com) TravelMate C100, and says that in just three months, he has made the device into his primary computer. When he's in class, he scribbles notes on the tablet's Journal function. When he's at home, he writes e-mails with a digital pen, thanks to Pen&Internet's riteMail product. And when he's scheduling his day, he uses FranklinCovey's Tabletplanner calendar system.
As O'Toole tells it, none of these software features comes in as handy as the Form function of the tablet itself. Many Kellogg classes involve group learning, and O'Toole says that during these sessions, he swivels the display screen so his group partners can see his notes. "Rather than having everyone crowd around the screen of someone's laptop, we can proceed comfortably together."
What Happens Next
By and large, few, if any, academics say they have any practical knowledge of tablet PCs beyond what they've seen in advertisements and on TV. (Microsoft recently purchased a vast number of ads in magazines and on Web sites to try and get the word about its tablet operating system on the street.) Still, the tablet is a relative mystery.
While some experts attribute this to the relative newness of tablet technology overall, others say a sense of "elitism" already has become one of the biggest challenges to the product's survival in all markets. "Tablet PCs are still an unknown quantity," says Roger Kay, an analyst with IDC market researchers (www.idcresearch.com). Kay questions whether tablet technology can become more than a niche product in the medical and academic industries. "At first [mass-market] consumers will see them as ergonomically clumsy or oversized PDAs," he says.
Another challenge to tablet adoption in academia is price. A look at the products on the market (see page 63) indicates that the cheapest tablet design sells for about $1,600, and the average price comes in at about $2,200. These prices more or less are in line with premium and ultra-portable notebooks, but according to Leslie Fiering, VP of Mobile Computing for Gartner, the market analysts (www.gartner.com), so long as students and other academic customers can purchase notebook computers for less than $1,200, they will.
"Most of the customers in the academic world aren't operating with unlimited disposable income," says Fiering, who has followed tablet technology since OEMs first announced their development strategies in the summer of 2001. "Until the price factors between notebooks and tablets are 100 percent equal, I don't think this [new technology] will catch on with anyone but niche users."
Whatever happens with regard to price, perhaps the paramount challenge to the adoption of tablet PCs in academia is general practicality. As Flaring points out, there's no compelling reason for most consumers to move toward the tablet design--pen input is a luxury, and most users already have conditioned themselves to take notes on a traditional keyboard. What's more, with pen and paper serving just fine as note-taking implements for hundreds of years, Fiering wonders whether customers in and out of academia really will become willing to adopt this technology on the large scale.
At IDC, Kay offers both best- and worst-case scenarios for tablet PCs on the general scale. At worst, he says, tablets will struggle in the market, selling about 575,000 units in the U.S. this calendar year, rising to 1.9 million units in 2006. At best, he says, sales will hit 800,000 units this year, and reach 7.3 million units in 2006. None of these numbers say anything in particular about academia, but with supporters such as Ellis-Behnke and the folks at Purdue, the mere prospect of tapping the academic marketplace on a broad scale has OEMs licking their lips.
"This technology perfectly addresses all of the previous complaints about notebook computers," says Craig Marking, senior product marketing manager for Toshiba (www.toshiba.com), whose Portege 3500 marks among the most popular tablet PCs. "Whenever people in the academic world come to realize that fact depends on them."
Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in Seattle, and Moss Beach, CA.
Decisions, decisions: there's no shortage of tablet PC products on the market today. Here's how you can tell them apart.
Product: TravelMate C100
Manufacturer: Acer Inc.
Web site: www.acer.com
Endorsed by Microsoft, the TravelMate C100 is a top seller. It includes an ultra-low-voltage mobile Intel Pentium III processor that operates at 800 megahertz, as well as a 20-gigabyte hard drive. TravelMate also is available with an integrated InviLink 802.11b wireless LAN module and internal antenna. Acer's new Centrino TM110 Tablet is now shipping, too.
Manufacturer: Electrovaya, Inc.
Web site: www.electrovaya.com
Boasting the longest battery life on the market (up to 16 hours), the Scribbler is also available with a $99 battery upgrade that powers the product for a full day/night. This Canadian-made tablet features a low-voltage mobile Intel Celeron processor that operates at 733 megahertz, a 20-gigabyte hard drive, integrated 802.11b wireless connectivity, and a built-in joystick for easy gaming.
Product: Compaq TC1000
Mfr: Hewlett Packard Co.
Web site: www.hp.com
The Compaq TC1000 weighs in at just 3 lbs, making it one of the lightest tablet PCs on the market. It comes standard with a removable keyboard and flexible docking system that does net require synchronization. Also standard are a 1-gigahertz Crusoe TM5800 processor, 30-gigabyte hard drive, 10.4-inch screen, and built-in wireless networking capabilities.
Product: Portege 3500
Mfr: Toshiba America, Inc.
Web site: www.toshiba.com
This tablet features the fastest processing speeds, thanks to a 1.33-gigahertz, Intel Pentium III processor-M with Enhanced Intel SpeedStep technology. The device also offers 20-, 30-, or 40-gigabyte hard drives, and an optional 802.11b wireless network card. The convertible design enables use as a traditional notebook or a stand-alone slate-type tablet PC.
Product: Toughbook CF18
Manufacturer: Panasonic USA (Matsushita Electric Corp.)
Web site: www.panasonic.com
Based on a 900-megahertz version of the new Pentium M ULV processor, the CF18 boasts what Intel calls its new Centrino mobile technology. The device features a full magnesium alloy case, as well as integrated wireless WAN, LAN, and GPS. And while the average weight of other tablet PC devices is rarely more than 3.5 lbs, the "tougher" Tough-book weighs a hefty 4.4.
Product: Tablet PC
Manufacturer: Gateway, Inc.
Web site: www.gateway.com
The Gateway Tablet PC weighs just about 3 lbs, and comes with a mobile keyboard and a docking station that features several ports for connecting peripherals. The device also features integrated 802.1 lb wireless Internet capability, a low-volt, Intel Pentium III processor that operates at 866 megahertz, and a 40-gigabyte hard drive. While other tablets come with one digitized pen, this one comes with two.
Product: Stylistic ST4000
Manufacturer: Fujitsu Limited
Web site: www.fujitsu.com
The Stylistic ST4000 weighs a mere 3.2 lbs and is less than an inch thick The device comes standard with an 800-megahertz ultra-low-voltage mobile Intel Pentium III Processor, a 20-gigabyte hard drive, and a wireless keyboard. It also is available with a revolutionary tablet dock, enabling it to be used like a desktop.
Mfr: PaceBlade Technologies, Inc.
Web site: www.paceblade.com
Perhaps the most notable feature on this device is the Crusoe TM5800 processor, a full-speed processor that requires only 5 watts of power, obviating a fan. The PaceBook also offers a 12.1-inch screen, two USB ports, and an IEEE-1394 port that enables users to connect high-speed devices or digital camcorders. The device sports a tripod hole and can be mounted anywhere, just like a flat-screen TV.
Product: Tablet PC V1100
Manufacturer: ViewSonic Corp.
Web site: www.view sonic.cam
Compact and lightweight at only 3.4 lbs, the V1100 comes with an 866-megahertz mobile Intel Pentium III processor and a 20-gigabyte hard drive. The product features built-in, 802.1lb Mini-PCI wireless connectivity, and a new bezel design boasts eight one-touch access buttons, as well. Depending on where you buy it, the V1100 also may come with a free mini-USB keyboard.
Product: Motion M1200
Mfr: Motion Computing, Inc.
Web site: www.motioncomputing.com
Launched by a spinoff of former Dell programmers, this device is the closest Michael Dell wants to get to tablet technology at this juncture. The tablet boasts a ULV mobile Intel Pentium III processor that operates at 866 megahertz, as well as a 20-gigabyte hard drive. With the help of the $100 M-Series FlexDock, Motion also offers a "grab and go" docking solution for mounting at a desktop.
Product: Versa LitePad
Manufacturer: NEC Solutions, Inc.
Web site: www.necsolutionsam.cam
At 2.2 lbs, NEC's Versa LitePad is the industry's thinnest and lightest tablet PC solution. The product features an ultra-low-voltage mobile Pentium III processor that operates at 933 megahertz, a 20-gigabyte hard drive, and a bevy of pro-installed software packages, including Corel Grafigo, FranklinCovey TabletPlanner, Adobe Acrobat Reader Version 5.0, and Alias/Wavefront SketchBook Pro.--MJV