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E-Commentary -- The Skinny On The Tablet PC

Will manufacturers embrace pen-based computers?

The pen is mightier than the sword, but is it mightier than the keyboard or the mouse? It's the question manufacturers and other businesses will have to decide sooner or later when they evaluate their next personal computer purchases. The latest generation of PCs is something called the "tablet PC." These are basically skinny laptops or notebook-size computers, but with a twist. These machines come equipped with a special pen to write on the screen the same stuff you normally would write using a keyboard. To ease the transition from the keyboard to the new pen-based form factor, most new tablet PCs are convertibles, that is, they also contain a keyboard. Tablet PCs are not new, you say? It's true, they've been around a while, but they never had the size or facility of the current batch being offered by Acer, Toshiba, Compaq and other manufacturers. "In the past, it never took off," says Sumit Agnihotry, mobile product manager at Acer America Corp. in San Jose, Calif. "One reason was the technology -- the machines were not as thin or light as today's machines are. Today is definitely the right time for the tablet PC to be more mainstream." Whoa. It's a little early to predict that major corporations, especially in manufacturing -- often one of the last sectors to jump on any high-tech bandwagon -- are going to throw over their mice- and keyboard-based computers for a stylus and a screen. For one thing, the technology is still in its infancy, and there are some bugs to be worked out. Probably the most egregious of these is the current handwriting recognition of these machines. If you try using longhand -- the way most people take notes in a meeting, for instance -- forget it. You might as well be writing Swahili. I tried writing the same word longhand twice on one of these machines, and both times it failed to translate what I'd written. I mean, who needs encryption with a tablet PC? "There's definitely some truth about the handwriting recognition issue," says Acer's Agnihotry. "One-hundred percent translation accuracy is definitely impossible." As a solution, he suggests note-takers using a tablet PC, say, at a meeting, simply save their notes in longhand and distribute them via e-mail to the rest of the work team. "As long as the second party has Microsoft Office 2000, they will be able to read what you've written -- in your handwriting, of course." Adds Ed Sullivan, president of IBC, a Hartford, Conn.-based distributor of industrial bearings who is a fan of the tablet PC, "You have to become a little more disciplined to make your handwriting clearer." One nice aspect of the tablet PC is that you can take it to a meeting and use it during the meeting to take notes, even while others are speaking. That's because, instead of making noise tapping away at a keyboard, you are simply writing on a screen, almost silently. "If you really want to aggravate people, pull out your laptop and start tapping on the keyboard during a meeting," observes Howard Kamerer, COO at Allied Telesyn Inc., a manufacturer of network equipment based in Olympia Fields, Ill. "For me, the tablet PC is a way to get away from the keyboard and back to a pen." Of course, whether corporate America embraces the tablet PC as the next big thing is anybody's guess. Only time will tell if the pen is mightier than the mouse or the keyboard. Doug Bartholomew is a former IndustryWeek Senior Technology Editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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