Blog Post

The Untapped Tablet PC Market

Tablet_pc(an open request to OEMs and Microsoft)Tablet PC users get it. They have experienced first hand how a well designed Tablet PC can enhance their daily productivity. The ability to use ink intelligently in most programs can be a big time saver and allow the creative process to be more focused. So why are Tablet PCs not selling as well as expected? A lot of articles have been written trying to address why the Tablet PC has not made a bigger impact in the market, and most of them give a number of reasons why more consumers are not snapping these portable computers up. Most of the reasons cited are valid and the major ones can be summed up like this:· Size- most Tablet PCs are just too big for the average user to carry everywhere. Sure the executive can carry it around to meetings all day and take them in place of a laptop on business trips but most Tablets are too big to carry everywhere. When’s the last time you saw someone using a Tablet PC in Starbuck’s or outside of the workplace? The size of standard Tablets also makes it somewhat of a big production to pull one out in meetings which puts off some prospective customers.· Weight- this goes hand in hand with the size issue above. It is a hassle to carry three pounds of anything all the time, and eventually users will elect to leave the Tablet so they don’t have to carry it around on short trips.· Battery life- great improvements have been made in this area over the last two years but let’s face it, it takes a lot of juice to power the bigger screens we see on most Tablets today. You are still lucky to eke 3 or 4 hours out of a normal Tablet which makes mobility a little harder. How many times have you used your Tablet heavily on a given day and then sweated out the end of the day hoping you would not run dry? Or elected to not pull out the Tablet for less important tasks so you wouldn’t drain the battery. Or frantically had to look for a power outlet to charge the Tablet, which means you had to carry the power adapter with you.· Price- Tablet PCs are now the hardware equivalent of laptops with the addition of the active digitizer needed to take advantage of the Tablet OS platform. This results in most Tablet PCs costing quite a bit more than laptops that have much better hardware specifications. It’s difficult for individuals to justify the premium and corporations are impacted even further when confronted with volume purchases.Handtops or Ultra-portable ComputersFew genres of computers have generated as much anticipation and excitement as the handtop. A handtop or Ultra-portable Computer (UPC) is basically the equivalent of a laptop in a near PDA form. The Sony U-50/70 which released in Japan earlier this year and the OQO which recently released for sale in the US have demonstrated clearly there is a big demand for very portable computers running Windows XP. Whole web sites have been established to follow this genre of computer and prospective customers have been almost fanatical waiting for the appearance of handtops en masse. There is a huge appeal to carrying your whole computer with you everywhere you go. So what does this have to do with the Tablet PC?U70_pics_024I am in a unique position to address this as I have been using a Sony U-70 running the Tablet OS for a few months. The Sony is slightly larger than a PDA, with a 5″ screen running at a resolution of 800×600. This little Tablet PC has been a tremendous boon to my mobile productivity, as it provides a full Tablet PC in a form that can be taken virtually anywhere. No big case to carry around, and it’s very unobtrusive to pull out anywhere and use. The small screen means good battery life, and it is a joy to ink away on this little powerhouse. But even with these benefits, all is not as perfect as it could be. I have given a lot of thought to how it could be improved, and as a result of that I think a new Tablet PC form could be easily done to address the improvements needed.Introducing the Mini TabletThe only problem with the small screen of the Sony is it can be difficult to do a lot of note-taking on the screen. The writing area is just a little bit too small to do a significant amount of inking into OneNote or Windows Journal, and this nullifies the single best advantage of a Tablet PC. I believe this shortcoming would be easy to address, and I propose a Mini Tablet. This Tablet would have the following general specs:Screen- a six to eight inch screen with an active digitizer like those found in standard Tablet PCs would alleviate the note-taking problem I have now on the Sony. This screen would also provide for a small enough form factor that will control the overall size, weight, and thickness of the Mini Tablet. This will keep the size of the Mini Tablet down to a perfect size for mobility.CPU- an Intel Dothan CPU operating at >1.5 GHz would make the Mini Tablet as powerful as any Tablet or laptop and would be more than adequate for virtually any task. The Dothan is a very power stingy processor that will aid in stretching the battery as long as possible, while keeping the heat down. This CPU would work with Intel’s integrated WiFi providing 802.11 a/b/g for mobile connectivity.OS- Full Windows XP Tablet OS 2005 should be standard. The Mini Tablet must be a full Tablet PC in function, if not size. It is important for users to be able to install any Windows XP program they want and take it with them. I cannot overstate how big a benefit this has been to me with the Sony. A stripped down version of the OS, something between Windows XP and Windows CE .NET, would not work. That would likely provide watered down software solutions that turns people off. You want to be able to use all your programs on the Mini Tablet that you currently use on your big system. No learning curve is important to win new customers. You must be able to work with all your documents with no compromises, and no synchronizing necessary.Memory- at least 512 MB of memory is needed to fully use multi-tasking in Windows XP and this should be the minimum. A gig would be better and a good option if space allowed.Joystick- one of the most useful features on the Sony U-70 is the trackpoint style joystick on the upper right of the computer. This feature coupled with two mouse buttons on the upper left makes it easy to pop the computer out for quick tasks without grabbing the pen. This is a huge time saver and the Mini Tablet can also benefit with the inclusion of this. The Sony also has a hardware button configured to instantly rotate the display from landscape to portrait (and back) which is crucial for the Mini Tablet. Many functions make better sense to do in portrait orientation and I suspect most note taking would be done in portrait. All hardware buttons should auto configure (user controllable) depending on screen orientation so they are always optimal no matter which way the screen is pointing. They rotate with the screen which makes sense. The Sony does this too very nicely.Page UP/DOWN rocker- this should be on the side of the Mini Tablet in portrait mode to make it easy to read ebooks and scroll vertically while web browsing. The Mini Tablet would be a perfect platform for reading ebooks and magazines and the inclusion of this simple feature would make that experience quite pleasurable.Hard drive- the hard drive needs to be at least 30 GB. The appearance of 0.85 inch drives should make this very easy to do and require little space and power. Toshiba expects to have a 60 GB version of their tiny drive by the end of this year which would be perfect and offer plenty of storage space.Bluetooth- the Mini Tablet needs Bluetooth to make it easy to work with cell phones for connectivity, and wireless keyboards and mice when mobile.Output jacks- headphone for MP3 playing during down time or when reading ebooks.Microphone- a good internal microphone is important to allow speech dictation as provided in the Tablet OS. It’s also important for recording meetings and interviews. The Sony lacks an internal microphone and it is sorely missed.CF/ SD slot- a CF Type II slot for using with Microdrives, I/O cards like GPRS. The CF and SD slots will make it easy to transfer information from digital cameras.Standby button- one of the most used buttons on the Sony is the Standby button, which does exactly what it says. The Sony will go into Standby within 2 – 3 seconds after pressing the button and the Mini Tablet needs this too. The power button should be configurable to go into Hibernate instead of power off if the user desires.USB 2.0- at least one USB port for connecting peripherals is crucial. It will likely be the only way to back up the device while traveling. A Firewire port would be nice to have, too. You need the ability to boot from an optical drive when traveling for emergencies whether via USB or the Firewire port.Dock- it is important with mobile devices that a dock be standard. The dock should be as small as the Mini Tablet is wide in landscape, and have all the requisite ports for hooking up USB and Firewire peripherals, keyboard, mouse, external monitor, and a CD/DVD drive. The dock should be a “smart” dock in that it makes it a simple matter of popping the Mini Tablet in and instantly connecting to all peripherals and the monitor. It would be nice to have a slot on the dock for charging an extra battery along with the Mini Tablet. Since the Mini Tablet configuration I’ve outlined here is “full-figured” it would be nice if the dock would drive two external monitors for a dual head setup. Consumers will pay a premium for a portable device if it can become their only system when docked. I predict one of the biggest hurdles that UPCs will face is the cost. Users find it hard to justify a full computer price for a portable computer that can’t become their only system. The Mini Tablet when docked should do anything a bigger system can do and do it well. The Sony does all of that now with the exception of driving dual external monitors which would be nice. It will drive the internal screen and an external monitor simultaneously, however the small internal screen doesn’t add much utility in this mode.Carrying case- the size of device I have described is perfect to fit in a zip up case that protects the Mini Tablet and carry anywhere. The case would be the size of daily planners that many people carry around anyway and would be easy to handle. It is important to make sure the Mini Tablet can be removed easily from the case for using in the hand like a standard Tablet. There should be a pop-up stand that props the Mini Tablet up in the case for using with a wireless keyboard and mouse while mobile.If you build it they will comeI am convinced there is a tremendous market for a Mini Tablet such as I have described in this article. I have experienced first-hand the utility you get with a complete Tablet in the palm of your hand. I have reveled in the ability to take a Mini Tablet almost everywhere, insuring I always have the ability to do something when I might otherwise be idle. I realize such a device would not be as cheap as some would like but I think it could be done much cheaper than standard Tablet PCs due to the much smaller screen.I see a lot of clamoring in the community for a small mobile device that is a complete computer in every respect. I have enjoyed the benefits of having one with me all the time when I need it. I am confident that such a device as the Mini Tablet would reach a lot of prospective customers that are currently passing the Tablet PC by. So, OEMs and Microsoft, are you listening?

51 Responses to “The Untapped Tablet PC Market”

  1. This is *exactly* the form factor I’m looking for! And have been for some time now.

    Instant-on would be fantastic, but I could probably do without it as long as I accompanied my mini-tablet PC with a smartphone that held all of my PDA-type information (calendar, contacts, etc.) In fact, I’d love to use my smartphone with its high-speed, flat-rate data connection (like what I have on Sprint), as a modem for the mini-tablet when I’m not in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot.

  2. Northern Rebel

    I’ve been using tablet pcs long before MS made their specs. The oldest and best of its days was the Mitsubishi Amity line of tablets. They almost fit MicroSofts definition even then; wacom, CTRL-ALT-DEL, etc. The last model ran at 200mhz with a max of 96mg of RAM. It could almost run XPTE. Well walk with it anyway…lol. It had a 7.4 inch display, USB 1.0, a programmable numeric keypad, a hard cover that flipped over to form a sturdy stand for using it with a keyboard and mouse. They had a supurb line of accessories too, from HECs to DC adapters, anything I needed and good quality.

    Update the specs on this model and slim it down some and it would be my with me always. Here’s a link about the older VP model if you want to checkout a pic and the specs yourself.

    If you search eBay you can sometimes find these things for sale and could see a pic of the last model… Mitsubishi CP, still works as a great web tablet.

  3. Danny, that’s a good find. I remember when this first came out over a year ago and wondered if it would be successful. Turns out it really hasn’t been a big seller. I think it’s a function of the CPU being a slow Transmeta coupled with the display only being SVGA. That’s the same resolution as the 5″ screen on the Sony U-70 and it would be quite large on the 8.4″ screen of the Vison. This is pretty close to the Mini Tablet, though.

  4. Danny TabletPClurker

    Anyone try V800XPT?

    8″ with Tablet PC (and external, detached keyboard)? The only drawback for me is that the pen requires AAAA battery and no PCMCIA slot (or no 11a built in). I only use wifi 11a so 11b-only is a strong negative. I like the optional long life battery, though…

    P.S. to email, convert “at” and “dot” to symbols and convert the zeros into letter “oh”‘s and remove the g00gle d0main.

  5. Hmmmm, nope your all wrong, think smartphone and PDA clearly it all depends on preference, even MS have conflicting devices eg PDA & Smartphone.

    The true reality is this:
    1)Battery life: The speed of processors doubles every year, the power of batteries is +20%/yr therefore until a new battery is found we are pissing in the wind.

    2)Display/interface: You cant win, either its too big or too small or worse neither. Answer will be virtual displays. eg heads up specs that will use less power (backto item1) and a 3 dimensional input space. eg a pen that can be used like a mouse on any surface using radio geomatry to the device.

    Given the above attributes the “hardware” will be a convenient size, hmmmm the size of a mobile-phone and yes its a phone aswell! Add your specs and wireless “touchless” pen thats job done for any eventuality. No need to manufacture numerous sized platforms.

    I give it 18 months! Before we will see this at trade fairs, so Im putting a note in my diary and will return to:

    To wallow in my glory :)

  6. as robin said “you make it, i’ll buy it”…how about “instant on?”, can xp tablet be burned in a rom chip? booting up is the worst part of my tc1000, otherwise your concept is just right

  7. Couldn’t agree more – I think the market demands a “mini-tablet” for many verticals where the full size TPC is impractical. If the price point can fall (instead of rise, which typically happens during miniturization), even personal consumers would probably buy them. And one of my biggest problems besides the size is the battery life of my NEC – the mini-tablet’s screen would reduce the drain. I’ve envisioned and drawn up plans for mini-tablets that would specifically target our industry (CAD/CAM for example) that could use Gameboy like controls to let you view drawings and blueprints. If we can get the manufacturers to buy into your design, that could provide a launch pad for a very lucrative market in our case. Nicely thought out!

    Ben Kopf
    Autodesk Product Design

  8. I would encourage any readers who feel they would love a small Tablet PC to post feedback here. The MS Tablet PC team has linked and trackbacked to this article so it’s our chance to make our voice heard. :)

  9. I fully agree with your report and I also see a big market for such kind of tablet PC’s. I’m living in Germany andI would like to purchase a SONY U70, could you tell me, where to buy ?

    THX Dirk

  10. I’d like a tablet pc along these lines. But I think there’s another reason people might still resist…
    The average home user doesn’t want to worry about taking care of a $2000 piece of equipment that is easy to break, get dirty, etc. Who wants to have to be so careful with something like that. Can you really set it on the counter when you cook? Do you really want to deal with Windows OS when you just want to look up something or make a quick note? Do you really trust it to work the way you want ehn you really need it?

    When these things are resolved, plus it’s cheap and/or durable, it will catch on much more. For now, even smaller with better battery it’s going to be a niche product that people like us would buy, but not the general public.

    Of course, if the price comes down to notebook prices, you’ll see it replace the notebook, but that’s about it until the other issues are resolve.

    Just my off-the-cuff thoughts. But I’d sure like to see it take off, because not only will it bring prices down, but it will enable interoperability with the average person and it will drive more useful software.

  11. Mark Ross

    Hi JK,

    I think the FLYBOOK is the machine you may be looking for?

    Can you tell me what you think about it? I’ve been looking for something in this market niche and it seems that it is an exceptioanl value.



  12. A device like this would be great for medical students and health professionals. With the smaller size it would easily fit into the large pockets on our white lab coats. I would love to be able to pull something like this out of my pocket to take notes and access info.

  13. Good specs, and I agree with them. Price would be a factor, though. It’d have to come in under 1500 before I would consider. Would also have to have instant on, but I suppose standby would work. IR would be nice, but not necessary I suppose – I’m not yet really into BT, but I suppose it’s obsoleting IR.

    Great thinking, but I,d be very surprised if it materializes within the next two years.

  14. Completely agree. I’m in the market for a Tablet PC and would have considered either the U50/U70 or the OQO except for the screen size. You’ve captured all of the features that are mandatory along with a “mid-size” screen…something in between a PDA size and a standard Tablet PC size.

    I would snap up a device like this without blinking an eye!


  15. I agree.

    Bring it to us and we’ll pick it up.

    Since I’ve been using a Nokia 6820 cellphone, I wish a subnotebook, UPC, or Tablet manufacturer would make a similar keyboard. It’s very efficient.