Tablet PC vs. High-End PDA

I've been playing with a device that might just sound the death knell of high-end PDAs: a Tablet PC (specifically, Acer's TravelMate 100). I'll be covering the Tablet PC in detail in a forthcoming issue of Windows & .NET Magazine, but I'd like to give you a rough idea of how Tablet PCs fit into the mobile and wireless arena.

Let's start with what a Tablet PC isn't: It certainly isn't pocket sized. The Acer weighs a couple of pounds and is about the same size as a conventional notebook PC. Also, because they have hard disks, Tablet PCs don't provide true instant-on capability, as PDAs do. And Tablet PCs offer limited, notebook PC-like battery life.

However, Tablet PCs are full-blown, Windows XP-based computers that let you do just about anything you do on your desktop PC. (The only real limitation is the display size.) Therefore, you have access to functionality that is impossible—or that requires significant compromises—on a PDA.

In particular, you can run full applications, including Microsoft Office, on a Tablet PC. Therefore, you have complete email functionality, whereas on a PDA you're mostly limited to text-only mail. (You can receive attachments on a Pocket PC, but you'll rapidly run out of memory, and complex attachments might not work with the cut-down applications that these little devices provide.) You can also use a full copy of Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, or any other key application.

As a writer and editor, I most frequently use Outlook and Word (and sometimes PowerPoint, when I'm giving presentations). I can get by with Pocket Outlook and Pocket Word for writing, but when an editor sends me a manuscript for review, I'm in trouble. Pocket Word doesn't support revision marks.

Because Tablet PCs have large hard disks (the Acer I've been testing has a 30GB hard disk), you can take complete databases with you. For example, you can store a full copy of Microsoft's Automap Streets and Trips, which covers the entire United States. You can use Pocket Streets on a Pocket PC, but you must download maps for the specific areas you plan to visit.

I'm a private-airplane pilot, and one application that would benefit me is electronic charting. When I fly, I carry three-ring binders that contain "approach plates" for nearby airports. Keeping those plates up-to-date is time-consuming, and when I travel long distances, I must buy additional charts. A few years ago, on a cross-country trip from California to Ohio and back, I carried a suitcase full of charts! Jeppesen, the company that makes approach plates, offers the plates on CD-ROM, but a full-blown computer is required to display them. Some companies offer plates for Pocket PCs, but just as with Pocket Streets, you must download the charts you need before you leave. (Alternatively, you could bring a notebook PC that contains all the charts and load the relevant ones into the Pocket PC before departing on each leg.) A Tablet PC would let me always carry a complete set of charts.

Granted, most of this newsletter's readers aren't pilots, but I'll bet most of you are what Microsoft calls "corridor warriors"—people who spend a lot of time in meetings (or support users who do). The Tablet PC shines in such an environment. PDAs, of course, are now pervasive in offices, giving users instant access to their appointment calendar and address book. The Tablet PC provides that access and a great deal more. The Tablet PC makes particular sense if your company has a wireless LAN—users can enjoy as much access to their files in a conference room as they do at their desks. And unlike conventional notebook PCs, Tablet PCs aren't obtrusive.

The advent of the Tablet PC is bad news for the high-end PDA—particularly the Pocket PC. The low-end PDA market (dominated by Palm and its partners) is probably safe; Tablet PCs will be priced comparably to high-end notebook PCs, whereas basic PDAs sell for $200 or less. But as you move toward the high end, the cost of a sophisticated PDA such as a Hewlett-Packard (formerly Compaq) iPAQ—in addition to a wireless NIC and the various add-ons necessary to approach full-blown PC capabilities—can approach the cost of a Tablet PC but offers less functionality. Some users will probably still want that power in a pocket-sized form factor, but for many of us a Tablet PC is probably a better choice. Both devices will compete for the same user—I don't imagine many people will want both a high-end PDA and a Tablet PC. Even if they do want both, I doubt many companies will be prepared to pay for both!

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the Tablet PC. I've been watching with interest as pundits have reacted negatively to Microsoft's Tablet PC announcement earlier this month. The device is even controversial among the Windows & .NET Magazine staff: Paul Thurrott tested the same Acer device I'm using now, and he wasn't impressed. (You'll find his reaction in his commentary for the June 26 edition of Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE, titled "The Tablet PC: Evolution, Revolution ... or Nonevent?" which you can access from the URL at the end of this paragraph.) But I believe this technology bears watching.

Microsoft and its partners (including Acer, Toshiba, HP, Motion Computing, and Fujitsu) expect Tablet PCs to ship in quantity this fall

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