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Manufacturers Pin High Hopes On PC Tablets

With the launch of the long-awaited Tablet PC last year, manufacturers are now trying to figure out whether consumers or businesses will be the primary customer for these devices.

The Tablet PC’s portability and built-in wireless networking capability make it a natural for both environments, with companies like Toshiba planning to position its version as a new style notebook computer, while ViewSonic sees it as more of a productivity tool.

“We want this to be a person’s primary notebook computer,” said Craig Marking, Toshiba’s senior product marketing manager. “It will cross all consumer and professional segments like the ultra-portable notebook category.”

He called the Tablet PC the next evolutionary step in notebook development and predicted it would replace the ultra-portable style. Toshiba plans to market and merchandize its Tablet PC, the Portege 3500, in the same manner as its other notebooks, Marking said, adding the company will make sure it has all the usual notebook amenities like a keyboard and good size LCD.

Marking said the addition of the keyboard is of particular importance.

Dan Coffman, senior product manager for ViewSonic’s mobile and wireless division, said his company is targeting the “corridor warrior” customer for its PCV1100. These are particular people whose offices are wirelessly networked. He also sees early adopter consumers who have 802.11b networks in their home as good targets for the Tablet PC.

Steve Baker, IT research director for NPDTechworld, Port Washington, N.Y., agreed with Coffman’s assessment on the Tablet PC potential customer base, but he cited a few reasons why the device will not have a large impact on the consumer market this year.

“The higher-end notebook is not an area consumers are interested. They want big, fat notebooks [desktop replacements] now,” he said, adding the applications on the Tablet PC is a bit beyond what the average consumer needs or can understand. However, these reasons are not likely to stop vendors from trying to entice consumers, he concluded.

This is logical since the best feature of the Tablet PC is its wireless capability. Marking said that in addition to 802.11b the Portege is Bluetooth ready, ensuring its access to all types of wireless products.

The massive advertising support Microsoft is giving the Tablet PC — Bill Gates developed the concept , which uses a version of Windows MX — has boosted the Tablet PC’s image among consumers and small businesses so greatly that Coffman believes retail is where the initial sales will take place.

“We’re selling through CompUSA, Fry’s and J&R because lots of businesses buy there, but eventually the reseller channel will catch up,” he said.

Marking said CompUSA sold out of its Tablet PC stock on the first day the Toshiba model was available.

ViewSonic has had a version of a Tablet PC, not based-on Windows MX, on the market for about a year selling into various vertical markets.

The education market also holds a great deal of promise for this new category, said Donald McDonald, marketing director for Intel’s mobile platform group. Marking agreed saying the tablet’s handwriting recognition capability makes it a natural for students to take notes.