Technology & You
Information All Over Your House
You can use a tablet to turn off the alarm system, brew the coffee, and read your e-mail
Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman William H. Gates III made quite a splash at the Comdex trade show this fall when he showed off a wireless-tablet computer that would let you browse the Web on a sharp display held in your lap while watching TV from the comfort of a recliner. I've played with the Microsoft tablet, and it's way cool. But it won't be available for more than a year.
Microsoft's rivals, however, aren't waiting. I am seeing wireless-tablet computers that are a far cry from the bulky and expensive products long used for specialized industrial applications. At least one consumer version is on the market, and many more are under development. While these early products have flaws, they are promising design concepts and will get a lot better as the software improves.
One model available today is the Honeywell (HON) WebPAD, a 3-pound tablet with a 10.4-inch display and a built-in wireless link to a home network. Battery life is about six hours, and the device stays cool enough to rest on your lap for hours. The Honeywell tablet (www.honeywell.com/yourhome/) is designed to handle security alarms, heating and cooling systems, and other household-control applications, which constitute a big business for Honeywell and explains their surprising foray into this field. But the tablet also makes a comfortable, easy-to-use Web browser that hooks easily into a home network. You enter text by tapping an on-screen keyboard. It is adequate for entering Web addresses but not a whole lot more. If you want to compose e-mail, you can set the tablet in its stand and add a USB keyboard, but then you're stuck working at a desk.WEAK LINK. There are two other serious drawbacks to Honeywell's device: One is the $995 price, which does not include the $195 wireless-base station. In a world of $400 to $600 Net appliances, this is steep. The other disadvantage is the software: The tablet is built on an outdated version of Windows CE and an underpowered Internet Explorer browser. I was watching television and playing with the tablet when news came of the Supreme Court ruling that ended the Presidential election. I wanted to read the Justices' decision on the tablet but was out of luck because it can't handle Adobe Acrobat files. RealNetworks (RNWK) streaming audio and video, Macromedia Flash animation, and Java are also out. A new version will feature a major upgrade to Windows CE 3.0, which boasts a better browser, though there's still no support for Acrobat. The next version also will have a better display and industry-standard 802.11 wireless technology, in place of the proprietary Proxim Symphony system used now.
SONICblue (SBLU) (formerly S3) has developed the Frontpath ProGear (www.frontpath.com). It's similar to the Honeywell pad but is based on a Transmeta processor with the Linux operating system and a Netscape browser--considerably more sophisticated hardware and software. Rather than aiming at the home market, SONICblue is targeting schools in partnership with River Logic, which supplies courseware. A light, wireless, and relatively inexpensive tablet seems ideally suited to educational use. Other manufacturers are developing their own tablets using a variety of processors, operating systems, and browsers. Look for more such devices to hit the market in coming months.
Tablets make a lot of sense as computing--particularly Web browsing--moves beyond the PC and the desk to the couch or kitchen. The biggest inherent design weakness is data entry; Microsoft proposes to solve it by using handwriting recognition. The prototype I tried eliminates one longstanding problem of writing on screens: The "ink" appeared on the display without the usual half-second lag time. But the tablet still had trouble deciphering my scrawl. While recognition is likely to improve in the months before the product ships, I am not convinced handwriting recognition will work well enough to make the product satisfactory. A simplified shorthand, such as Palm's Graffiti, might be a better choice until the day speech recognition, which is much better developed than handwriting, can do the job.
Mainly because of the limitations of data entry, few people will want a tablet as a primary computer or Internet-access device. But whether hung on a refrigerator door or plopped on your lap in the TV room, they bring an exciting new dimension to communications by making information available in any corner of your home. As the quality of the products--particularly the software--improves, this is a category that I think could really take off.By Stephen H. Wildstrom, TecH&You@businessweek.com