Decision Support: A first look at supporting Microsoft's new Windows XP Tablet PC Edition

Learn what the Tablet PC is, how it fits into your organization, what every Tablet PC user should know, and how to support it

Just as you are beginning to get comfortable with supporting all of the devices in your organization, Microsoft comes out with a new gadget. The Tablet PC is based on the same technologies as a notebook and runs a superset version of Windows XP, which makes the device uniquely valuable to your organization. It also means that supporting a Tablet PC is a slightly more challenging endeavor than just supporting a notebook. In this article, I’ll discuss what the Tablet PC is, how it fits into your organization, what every Tablet PC user should know, and how to support the Tablet PC.

What is the Tablet PC?
A Tablet PC is a branding that Microsoft has developed for devices that run Microsoft’s Windows XP Tablet Edition operating system. The tablet edition of Windows XP is a version of Windows XP Professional with additional extensions to support voice and handwriting recognition. There are two basic kinds of Tablet PCs available today. The first is a Tablet PC that operates as a notebook and converts to a tablet shape. These Tablet PCs, called convertibles, can operate as a notebook computer and convert to a tablet-like configuration in which a special pen is used to write on the screen. Typically, you convert it by unlocking and rotating the screen, then locking the screen into the new position.

The other kind of Tablet PC offered today is called a slate. It does not have a keyboard; it only has a screen for writing. Generally speaking, slate-type devices are more rugged than the convertible-type units because they don’t need to allow for screen rotation; however, the lack of keyboard may be a prohibitive factor for the mainstream user. Most slate-type units do, however, have cradles that they can be set in. These cradles attach the unit to an external keyboard and mouse, much like a docking station attaches a notebook to a full-size screen and keyboard.

Tablet PCs, notebooks, and PDAs: Key differences
Perhaps the most obvious difference between a Tablet PC unit and a traditional notebook is the ability to write on the screen. In fact, the Tablet PC is seen by many in the industry as the latest attempt by Microsoft to perfect the pen-based computing model. Writing on the screen isn’t something new, even to those who haven’t seen pen-based Windows. Most of us have experienced the ability to write on screens when using our PDAs. Both the Palm and Microsoft’s line of Windows CE-based devices, including the Pocket PC, have had the ability to write on the screen with a stylus for several years.

However, there is a key difference between how the Tablet PCs and PDAs register input on the screen. Most of the Tablet PC units on the market use a technology called Electromagnetic Resonance (EMR). EMR uses a special pen that uses no batteries and emits no signals. However, its design creates changes in a small magnetic field that exists on the surface of the screen. This design allows you to rest your hand on the surface of the screen while writing—something important for most writers. However, it also means that you can’t substitute the end of your finger for the pen that comes with the Tablet PCs. The pens that come with Tablet PCs must be kept with the unit because nothing else will work.

There is also an active sensing technology in which the pens contain a small battery that is used to emit a signal. However, most of the Tablet PC vendors have chosen not to use this active technology because of the fear of consumer reaction to a pen that utilizes disposable batteries.

One of the benefits of the larger screen of the Tablet PC, as compared to a PDA, is the ability to emulate a pad of paper. A new applet that comes with Windows XP Tablet Edition is Microsoft Journal. Microsoft Journal doesn’t quite replace the artsy wire-bound journals that you can buy at your local bookstore; it will, however, take the place of a regular pad of paper. As you might expect, Microsoft Journal has the ability to select pen colors and sizes. You can also switch over to a highlighter of any color.

Useful tools available on a Tablet PC
In addition to the functionality of paper and pen, there are other useful tools that are only available with the Tablet PC. One of the tools provides the ability to move a set of markings on the pad from one point on the page to another. This allows you to move aside a set of doodles or a thought that isn’t complete to make room for the next important item in a meeting. Another tool allows you to create more room on a page by pushing down information on the page. Instead of having to find a new place for your doodles, they can instantly be pushed down on the page. This is slightly more convenient than having to move sections of your writing from one place to another. Both features, however, make the Tablet PC a better note-taking device than the pen and paper.

However, perhaps the most interesting part of the Microsoft Journal applet is that it fully utilizes the handwriting recognition functionality that is integral to the Tablet PC. By selecting a set of handwritten text, you can convert it to typewritten text in order to paste it into another application or to replace the handwritten text. The handwriting recognition is far from perfect, but it’s far from useless too. By carefully choosing sections for recognition, selecting alternates from the list of options, and writing slightly larger than normal, you can get reliable recognition.

My handwriting, for instance, is actually very poor. I would blame it on too many years behind a keyboard, but it was never good (my professors would readily attest to that). Despite this fact, the Tablet PC recognized approximately 90 percent of the text that I wrote, with very little adaptation on my part. This level of handwriting recognition isn’t limited to Microsoft Journal. As mentioned above, the Tablet PC supports handwriting recognition natively. A special toolbar, the Tablet PC Input Panel, allows you to have an area of the screen appear for your writing. Once you’re finished, all you have to do is tap a button on the screen; your handwriting is then converted into text and pasted into the active application. Figure A shows the Tablet PC Input Panel in writing pad mode.

Figure A
The Tablet PC Input Panel shows you how easy it is to convert chicken scratch to text.

There are also other options for handwriting recognition, including the ability to write anywhere on the screen and have it recognized; however, this mode of handwriting recognition is difficult for most people to get used to, since it overrides the ability to use the pen to move the mouse pointer.

While handwriting recognition is great, it’s not the only alternative to inputting information into the Tablet PC. You also have the ability to talk to your Tablet PC. With some training and a good microphone, you can teach your Tablet PC to recognize your speech and put the converted text into your favorite application. The voice recognition included with the Tablet PC may not be perfect; however, it’s some of the most sophisticated voice recognition around. With years of development in Microsoft’s research arm, it was first shipped with Office XP. It's a great way to get started with a document—realizing that you’ll have to clean up the document when you’re done.

The real key to voice recognition, as any software vendor will tell you, is a good headset and proper microphone placement. Although you can use any headset to get started, the best results are obtained with a USB-based headset equipped with a boom microphone.

What every Tablet PC user should know
Below are some tips that will make using the Tablet PC more enjoyable for your users—and reduce the number of support calls you’ll have to take.

Battery life is still a problem
The Tablet PC devices available today are unable to support a full day of uninterrupted use. It’s important to counsel Tablet PC users to be cognizant of battery life issues. They should always be thinking about how much power they have left and how long it will take to charge the batteries.

Keep the pen perpendicular to the screen
One of the challenges with an EMR-based pen system is that the less perpendicular to the screen the pen is, the worse the recognition of the pen’s location will be. In other words, the more relaxed the pen angle, the harder it will be to tap buttons and write. This is because the Tablet PC can’t get a precise reading on the pen's location.

Always lock the screen
On convertible Tablet PC units, the screen is one of the most expensive components, and it’s the one that is most likely to be broken. Because of that, it’s important that the screen be locked in place no matter which mode the Tablet PC is in.

Keep track of the pen
As mentioned above, the EMR pens are required to use the Tablet PC in its tablet mode. They cannot be replaced with a finger or regular stylus. For units that have a spot for the pen in the case, return the pen when not in use. Consider purchasing at least one spare pen for each unit.

Reboot occasionally
Despite the well-developed support for Standby and Hibernation modes, when not in use, it is still necessary to reboot Windows XP periodically. The unit should be shut down when not in use for an extended period of time. This is particularly true in relation to Standby mode, since it requires a small amount of current from the battery.

Use the encrypting file system
Configure the file system to encrypt data for those users who travel. This will protect the data on the Tablet PC from being stolen if the Tablet PC is misplaced. See "Understanding the Windows 2000 Encrypting File System" or "Putting Windows 2000’s EFS to work."

How to support the Tablet PC
Supporting the Tablet PC breaks down into three basic categories: protecting the unit; supporting the unique features; and keeping data synchronized with the network.

Protecting the Tablet PC
By and large, Tablet PCs require the same protection that a notebook computer requires. Your organization should provide a case with appropriate padding to prevent unnecessary jarring. In addition, the case should have a relatively firm side to protect the unit if the user leaves the screen facing outward when it is placed in the bag. The screen is one of the most expensive parts of the Tablet PC and needs some special care; the Tablet PC allows the screen to face outward, so even the protection afforded by the outer case of a notebook computer is not always sufficient. You might consider placing firm cardboard or corrugated material in an existing notebook bag to provide an additional measure of protection.

Supporting unique features
The same speech recognition that is used in the Tablet PC is provided in Office XP. In that way, it’s possible to install Office XP on a desktop machine and play with the speech recognition to become comfortable with the way the Tablet PC recognizes voice. The other unique features of the Tablet PC, the ability to write on the screen and the coupled handwriting recognition, are easy enough to pick up with only half an hour of access to the device.

There are two basic features you should try. First, spend some time playing with the Microsoft Journal applet. Specifically, use the lasso to select text that you’ve written and the Action menu to convert it to text. Second, you should start Microsoft Word and open the Tablet Input Panel. This is the special toolbar that allows you to write text and have it pasted into the application. You can practice handwriting recognition by using this panel.

Data synchronization
The final component to supporting the Tablet PC is keeping data synchronized between the Tablet PC and the network. This is unlike the challenges that have accompanied synchronizing PDAs because the Tablet PC runs Windows XP, the same program used for notebooks and desktops, and not Windows CE or some other proprietary operating system. This means that all of the synchronization available to notebook users, including email, is supported without any special considerations. For instance, Outlook can be set up to run remotely, as shown in the article "Setting up Outlook for remote use."

It also means that the briefcase and Offline file functionality work on the Tablet PC. This allows you to synchronize files between the desktop and the network. If you’d like to learn more about this technology, you can read "Using Offline Files in Windows 2000." The process has not changed substantially between Windows 2000 and Windows XP.

Where a Tablet PC might make sense
As is the case with most new technology, Tablet PCs are surrounded by hype and enthusiastic supporters saying this technology will change the world. However, IT professionals know the truth often falls short of the hype. However, in the case of the Tablet PC, there are some definite areas where it lives up to expectations and can be helpful to your organization.

The first place where the Tablet PC might make sense for your organization is as a replacement for the notebooks carried by the sales staff. Generally speaking, an organization’s sales staff doesn’t need the fastest notebooks in the organization. What is more important is the ability to communicate with the customer. The slightly reduced specifications of a Tablet PC vs. a normal notebook shouldn’t be a problem for the sales staff. Tablet PCs do not, because of battery life concerns, have the fastest processors available. However, the ability to take electronic notes while at a client’s location can have real value—enough value to justify the slight reduction in pure performance.

There are also other applications where a Tablet PC might make sense. For instance, if your organization does door-to-door data collection, the Tablet PC makes a great input device. It allows you to capture basic information and signatures in one standardized device. Similarly, you might use it with a barcode scanner in a warehouse where ease of input and the large screen size can be a real benefit. For the most part, the Tablet PC is a focused tool and not a replacement for every notebook or PDA. As with any new technology, it is important to test the Tablet PC in the environments in which you would likely use it.

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