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    Consumers slow to swallow tablet PC technology

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver April 17-23, 2007; issue 912

    High Tech Office column; 

    It’s easy to have an image of our high-tech office environment as always changing. There’s the cliché that by the time you get a new piece of equipment out of the box it’s already obsolete.

    Microsoft’s Bill Gates introduced the Windows XP Tablet Edition in 2002, adding touch sensitive screens and handwriting recognition to notebooks or dedicated portable slate computers. So now, five years on, we’re all using them, right?

    Well, no. While standard keyboard-based notebook computer sales are booming, tablet PCs represent a tiny fraction of that market even though the price differential has dropped to $200 or less. Tablet PCs are most often found in areas like health care, where users might not always have access to a desk.

    Still, some users find tablets just what they need.

    North Vancouver’s SunTech Optics is a distributor of sunglasses, reading glasses and accessories. It started equipping its sales reps with laptops and portable printers early – around 1991 – to allow their reps to easily generate invoices and calculate the just introduced GST.

    More recently, when it was upgrading its back office software, it found a sales automation program named EZRoute that worked with its Microsoft Great Plains accounting system. It provided easy access to the top 10 reports the sales reps need most often. EZRoute could run on any Windows system, from a Pocket Windows PDA on up, so SunTech IT manager Mike Chang and a team of sales reps started evaluating hardware options.

    PDAs were portable, but screen sizes were too small, and it seemed just too hard to input information. And having to synchronize with a standard PC just seemed like extra work.

    Standard laptops were too bulky and were hard to use standing in a retail outlet. The company tried out an ultra-portable running a full version of Windows, but the tiny size meant a tiny keyboard – difficult for users with big hands – and miniaturization meant minimal performance for maximum cost.

    In the end, SunTech standardized on $2,200 Fujitsu Lifebook convertible tablet PCs, weighing in at about a kilogram (2.2 lbs) that work as standard laptops but with an 8.9-inch screen that can be flipped around to turn it into a touch-sensitive tablet. Users can work with them using their choice of mouse, built-in trackpoint or stylus.

    With the Fujitsu’s seven hours of battery life, sales reps have reported being able to make it through a week on the road without having to recharge, while the built-in wireless lets them send orders and invoices from any convenient hot spot.

    As a result, orders can often be processed and shipped the same day, and the sales reps can track order status right in front of the customer.

    Unlike a PDA, the tablets are fully functional PCs. Sales reps can use them to go online, check e-mail and connect to SunTech’s network to update inventory information.

    The tablets can also be used to display product information and PowerPoint presentations to customers. But because the tablets are touch-sensitive, customers can sign off on orders right on the screen. Try that on your standard laptop!

    Chang reports that the sales reps are happy with the light weight and functionality of the new systems.

    SunTech took its time finding a software and hardware package that met its needs and involved its end users in testing potential solutions. As a result, Mike Chang has a drawer full of products that didn’t make the cut.

    But he considers the time and expense a bargain compared with rolling out a “solution” that didn’t meet his sales reps’ needs.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan