Mobility

Putting the Tablet PC to work

If you thought Tablet PCs were just another Microsoft gimmick, read Will Schmied's take on how Tablet PCs might just make site surveying and taking inventory more manageable, not to mention less costly.


In case you hadn’t heard, the new generation of Tablet PCs has recently started shipping, complete with a specially engineered version of Windows XP: the Windows XP Tablet Edition. Tablet PCs, while still somewhat expensive and currently limited in selection, have tremendous potential to revolutionize the way your business operates—if you let them. Don’t believe me? Perhaps a comparison of a typical portable computer to a typical Tablet PC will help. After that, I'll examine two different areas where the Tablet PC can shine.

Examining the numbers
To truly understand the utility of the Tablet PC, you need to compare it to a standard portable computer. For the sake of this comparison, I'm going to compare a Dell Inspiron 8200 portable computer against a Fujitsu Stylistic ST4110 Tablet PC. These are both typical models in their classes. Table A outlines the specifications of these two machines.
Table A: Comparing the specifications

Specification          Dell Inspiron 8200          Fujitsu Stylistic ST4110
Weight          7.9 pounds          3.2 pounds
Thickness          1.69 inches          0.88 inches
Battery life          2.5 hours          4.5 hours
Accepts Type II PCMCIA card          Yes          Yes
Handwriting recognition          No          Yes
Built-in Ethernet          No (option)          Yes

These specifications are particularly noteworthy in terms of making your computer more portable. The Tablet PC is a hands-down winner because of its significantly reduced weight and longer average battery life. The fact that the Tablet PC supports handwriting recognition makes it even more useful. Now that you've seen the specifications of a typical Tablet PC, let's examine some places where the Tablet PC has the potential to make difficult jobs easier.

Wireless LAN site surveying
It's been said that performing a site survey for a wireless LAN installation is 90 percent walking, 10 percent surveying. If you've spent a day or perhaps even a week performing a survey of a large building or campus, then you know the truth in this statement. The basic premise behind a site survey is that you use various tools and utilities to discover the radio frequency (RF) behavior, coverage, interference, and proper hardware placement within the location being surveyed.

So, what exactly does this all mean? A typical site survey has the surveyor or survey team lugging around a wheeled cart full of all types of equipment. However, the majority of the work consists of walking around with a portable computer and a pad of paper. Why both? The portable computer is used to make various measurements about signal strength, signal-to-noise ratio, and various other critical items of concern—especially the location of dead spots, areas where there is no RF signal at all. The pad of paper is used to make sketches and other notes that are later converted into electronic form for the final site survey report.

Talking with the pros
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Devin Akin, CTO of Planet3 Wireless (a wireless LAN training and certification company) about the impact of the Tablet PC on the wireless networking sector. When I asked him for his thoughts about the usefulness of the Tablet PC in performing site surveys, he replied, “I have an ST4110 from Fujitsu, and it is superb. It has two wonderful uses by wireless networking industry professionals: site surveying and security auditing.”

Akin points out that, for site surveying, the unit is lightweight and has all of the advantages of a desktop-class notebook computer. He has the docking station that makes the Tablet PC into a fully functional desktop computer with more than enough horsepower for any reasonable computing task.

The unit is easy to carry and runs Windows XP Tablet Edition, which is the regular Windows XP Pro operating system plus some handy tools for handwriting recognition. “Taking notes on the Tablet PC using e-forms instead of paper saves much time and wasted paper on large projects,” said Akin. “All of the site surveying software tools available today run just fine on my tablet, and I consider it indispensable. It seems a bit awkward at first, but after you get used to it, you can’t do without it. It’s a site surveyor’s best friend.”

The site-surveying verdict
The reduced weight and bulk of the Tablet PC would go a long way towards making site surveying an easier job. Add to that the handwriting recognition and ability to draw freehand on the Tablet PC's screen, and you've just made making notes and drawing sketches or maps much quicker and easier tasks. The increased battery life of the Tablet PC means fewer battery change outs, which results in greater productivity. The Tablet PC has the potential to replace both the portable computer and the pad of paper used today for site surveying. As a result, site surveys can be accomplished more efficiently and more accurately, resulting in a better network design and a cost savings for all involved.

Inventory and stock control
Over the years, I have noticed that both UPS and FedEx have separately developed their own proprietary hardware/software solution for the efficient tracking of packages flowing through their systems. Wouldn’t it be great if your warehouse manager and warehouse floor personnel had the same type of system? One that would let them quickly and easily locate items, inventory them, and update a centrally located database, all from the floor of the warehouse itself and all without ever having to set foot into an office?

That situation could become a reality with a Tablet PC running on a wireless network, paired with a barcode scanner to quickly and accurately account for inventory (goods) or assets (computers and other company-owned items). The Tablet PC would be able to perform lookups against the organization's backend database that contains the master listing and make updates, additions, or deletions on the spot in real time, instead of having to work offline and batch upload changes. UPS and FedEx have been using a customized hardware/software solution for their package delivery tracking systems that functions in a similar manner. Now this ability can be brought to mainstream users who can only afford to purchase standard off-the-shelf hardware and software, but not to create or purchase customized solutions.

The Southland Corporation, parent company of the 7-11 convenience store chain, is a firm believer in the power and utility of the Tablet PC for inventory and stock control. Keith Morrow, vice president of information systems and 7-11 CIO, made enthusiastic comments about the uses of the Tablet PC in his corporation.

“Deployed on the Tablet PC, this application can go wherever our maintenance crews go; up ladders, into crawl spaces, or behind a Slurpee® beverage machine to get a serial number,” said Morrow. “Instead of resorting to filling out lengthy store inventory surveys by hand, maintenance crews can write or tap with their pens. They can also do drawings with rough measurements, for example, if they recommend putting in a new machine. The Tablet PC is easy, intuitive, and requires very little training.”

Are you a believer?
The Tablet PC has the potential to alter the landscape of business computing in the next several years. It will likely see widespread adoption in areas where portable computers have been used in the past, but only because they were a better option than a desktop computer. The lightweight, extended battery life and extreme utility offered by the Tablet PC make it hard to pass up.

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