December 10, 2007

The Orange County Register

Tablet PCs focus on workforce

By Sonya Smith

Toshiba rolls out 9th device for what's now a niche market of workers out in the field.

Toshiba on Monday unveiled the Portégé M700 tablet PC aimed at educators, health care workers and anyone who needs to fill in forms outside an office.

Because of their touch screens and pen-shaped styluses, ancestors of today's tablet PCs were called "pen computers" when they first appeared in the early 1990s. The term "tablet PCs" emerged early the next decade, and those evolved into today's models, with screens that flip to reveal a keyboard, allowing the computer to be used like a laptop.

The M700 is Toshiba's ninth tablet. It introduced its first tablet PC, the Portégé 3500, in 2002.

Kevin Roberts, Toshiba's M700 product manager, said the technology is just 5 years old but has improved significantly in computing power, weight, price and design. Compared to their first tablet PC, the M700 includes a hard drive that is up to four times larger, a processor that is twice as fast, battery life that is an hour longer, a price that's $500 lower and features that protect the tablet from being damaged when dropped or when liquid is spilled on it. Advanced technology made it possible to add those features while keeping the M700's weight and size about the same as the first Portégé.

"This computer is not meant to just be in the office. It's always on the go," Roberts said.

But not just the Portégé has changed since 2002; so has the market.

"A lot of people thought the tablet PC market would take off, but it didn't really happen," said Brian O'Rourke, a principal analyst with market researcher In-Stat who has followed the tablet PC market since 2002.

He said tablets were seen as the future in 2002 and were championed by MicrosoftChairman Bill Gates. But over the years, O'Rourke said, tablets have moved away from the mainstream and into niche markets where workers need to use computers in the field for forms, capturing digital signatures or taking notes without using a keyboard.

Research company Gartner Inc. also see tablets as a niche product right now, saying the majority of tablet sales are in fields such as health care, insurance, real estate and public safety.

An Gartner analysis on the tablet market in April said the right operating system, applications and computer design could push tablets into the mainstream computer market in 2008.

While Toshiba's Roberts says those three elements are beginning to align, the M700 is still aimed at mobile workers like those found at Hoag Hospital and UC Irvine.

UCI associate professor of informatics Andre van der Hoek is testing a tablet system that he thinks will help teach software design. Early this year, he received a grant from Hewlett-Packard for tablet computers, and he plans to begin using them in classes next fall.

Van der Hoek said he knows of teachers who use tablets personally in classrooms for showing notes to the class while walking and drawing. But he wants to expand that idea by giving tablet computers to the students.

"The tablet idea is that I can be at the front of the room and still see what all the students are doing," van der Hoek said.

Van der Hoek's system will rely on software he's developing to let students draw, sketch and scribble work on tablets. He will be able to monitor the work and pull up examples on a classroom screen.

"I want to re-engineer how computer scientists do their work," van der Hoek said.

Also reinventing traditional work is Deborah Buntin, manager of the Breast Care Center at Hoag Hospital. Since October 2005, her department has been using tablets for patients to fill out medical information and sign digital forms. That information can then be stored in the center's digital records without someone retyping the data.

"It's wonderful that we're getting away from paper," Buntin said.

She said the system still has a few kinks, the main problem being older patients who are uncomfortable using the tablet computers. Buntin's solution has been to hire someone full time to help patients use the tablet computers.

She said the system's benefits outweigh hiring an additional staff member. The system has cut down on time spent re-entering data, eliminated many paper needs, allowed for faster transmission of patient data into computers and reduced the number of errors from staff translating patients' handwriting. Buntin said the system has worked so well that it will be rolled out next in the Heart Valve Center.

Still, she said "I think the technology is still in its infancy."
Tablet PCs focus on workforce