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January 28, 2010

Talking with Paul Moore, Fujitsu's Senior Director of Product Development

The other day I had a very interesting hour-long conversation with Paul Moore, who is Senior Director of Mobile Product Development at Fujitsu. The call was arranged by Fujitsu's ever helpful Wendy Grubow to give me a chance to talk with Paul about the Fujitsu Lifebook T4410 Tablet PC that's currently in the lab for evaluation and testing.

Fujitsu, of course, has been into tablets longer than most and probably has the most experience of any Tablet PC and convertible vendors. Fujitsu had the PoquetPAD and 325Point tablets a decade before IBM reinvented the Tablet PC in 2002, and the company is now in something like the 40th generation of tablet technology. Yes, the 40th. During the 1990s, Fujitsu built a successful business around vertical market slate computers, most notably the Point and Stylistic models, with the latter line carrying on to this day. For a while Fujitsu also offered Windows CE-based devices such as the PenCentra line. Fujitsu also offered small business-oriented notebooks with pens when almost no one else did. What it all boils down to is that there's no one who has more corporate DNA in tablet and slate computers in any number of form factors.

Paul pointed out that at this point, Fujitsu is the only company that offers both slate AND convertible computers. There are many that have a notebook convertible in their lineups, such as Dell and HP, and there are some that only offer tablets, such as Motion Computing, but no one offers both in their market (one could argue that DRS ARMOR and a couple others do offer both platforms, but those are in the heavily rugged markets).

Anyway, it was interesting to hear Paul tell that Fujitsu is seeing a heavy migration from tablet to convertible. Customers are transitioning from the Stylistics to the more conventional Lifebook convertible notebooks that can also be used as slates by rotating the display and laying it down flat on top of the keyboard. That probably explains why Fujitsu is now down to one single model in the Stylistic line, the Stylistic ST6012, whereas the company offers no fewer than six different convertibles (the Lifebook T1010, T1630, T2020, T4310, T4410, and T5010).

With Panasonic making a big issue out of their rugged computers still being made in Japan, I asked Paul if the Fujitsu tablets and convertibles are also still made in Japan. The answer was yes, all Lifebook tablets are made in Japan, and all E-Series machines as well. However, while with Panasonic it was pretty clear that they made a connection of made in Japan = much lower failure rates, Fujitsu makes no such claim. Paul said failure rate stats are compiled, but given the vast differences in markets served makes any meaningful comparison essentially impossible.

I asked Paul why Fujitsu does not market its computers as "business-rugged," "semi-rugged," or one of the other ruggedness categories. The unequivocal answer: We don't have rugged tablets. Ours are durable, well-built, according to the markets we serve. We don't lose many customers because of ruggedness requirements. Fair enough. Full or even partial ruggedness can add a lot of cost and weight, so if it is not needed, why add it. Paul points out useful features that prolong the life of a computer, like a user-cleanable dust filter, accelerometer-based hard disk protection, a display hinge that rotates in both directions so it won't get damaged by inadvertently turning it the wrong direction, and so on.

With reference to the rotating display hinge, I asked Paul whether he knew why all Tablet PCs since 2001 have been designed with the same exact rotating hinge that lets users rotate the display and then fold it flat on top of the keyboard, LCD facing up. This is a good solution, but in notebook mode, the display flexes when you tap it with the pen. In the 1990s there had been several alternate solutions that minimized or eliminated the flex problem, but they are all gone. Paul said he wasn't aware of any patent protection or other reason why designers should be limited to the rotating displays, but it's a solution that works, flexing is not an issue when the device is used in tablet mode, and with the increasing importance of touch, flexing again is not an issue. Cost, too, might be an issue in staying with standardized solutions.

We also discussed the inherent suitability of a full desktop operating system for tablet and touch use. In my opinion, Windows itself has always been a major factor standing in the way of widespread tablet adoption; it's simply not suitable for pen operation. Paul felt that Windows 7 has made great strides towards better usability, but that in vertical markets it's really all about custom applications anyway, and those are usually optimized for whatever input medium is used.

With the recent advent of Intel's new Piketon and Calpella processor/chipset platforms I asked Paul what Fujitsu's plans were for the Intel Core i3/i5/i7 processors. His answer was that, for the most part, they prefer to use standard voltage processors that generally cost less, offer better performance, and represent an overall better value for users. Based on the benchmark result of our review unit that's equipped with a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo P8700 with a thermal design power of 25 watts, we see no immediate reason for a chip upgrade: the T4410 scored the highest overall performance results of any Tablet PC we have ever tested, and it still had an idle power draw of just 9.9 watts, barely more than most Atom-based systems.

Posted by conradb212 at 06:35 PM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2010

Tablet hype at fever pitch

A day before an Apple event where Steve Jobs will announce a new computing device, the hype about tablets is at an absolute fever pitch. Experts are popping out from the woodwork, showering us with their wisdom and predictions, most apparently believing that Microsoft invented and introduced the tablet in 2001, which couldn't be farther from the truth. But, perhaps, if enough instant experts say it's so, history has been rewritten. What will those instant experts do when they discover that the original early 1990s IBM Thinkpad was a tablet, and that we had the same exact tablet hype back in 1989/92?

That said, if Apple indeed releases a tablet device, it may well change things quite a bit.

Posted by conradb212 at 05:08 PM | Comments (0)

January 07, 2010

Slate and tablet computers: learning from the past

According to CNN, tablet-sized computers are now "a much-hyped category of electronics." True. The Associated Press says, "Tablet-style computers that run Windows have been available for a decade." Yes, and a lot longer than that. And a PC World editor states, "Tablet PC's are not new. The slate form factor portable computer has been around for almost a decade, since Microsoft initially pushed the concept with its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition." Nope. Microsoft did not initially push the concept with the XP Tablet PC Edition. Microsoft released a tablet OS way before that, in 1991, and even then it was just a reaction to what others had done before.

This shows how soon we forget. Or perhaps how effective current coverage has been in creating the impression that Microsoft invented tablet computers in 2001, rewriting history in the process. Fact is, slate and tablet computers have been around for a good 20 years, and in 1991, there was as much hype about slates as we have today.

A bit of slate computer history

In the late 1980s, early pen computer systems generated a lot of excitement and there was a time when it was thought they might eventually replace conventional computers with keyboards. After all, everyone knows how to use a pen and pens are certainly less intimidating than keyboards.
Pen computers, as envisioned in the 1980s, were built around handwriting recognition. In the early 1980s, handwriting recognition was seen as an important future technology. Nobel prize winner Dr. Charles Elbaum started Nestor and developed the NestorWriter handwriting recognizer. Communication Intelligence Corporation created the Handwriter recognition system, and there were many others.

In 1991, the pen computing hype was at a peak. The pen was seen as a challenge to the mouse, and pen computers as a replacement for desktops. Microsoft, seeing slates as a potentially serious competition to Windows computers, announced Pen Extensions for Windows 3.1 and called them Windows for Pen Computing. Microsoft made some bold predictions about the advantages and success of pen systems that would take another ten years to even begin to materialize. In 1992, products arrived. GO Corporation released PenPoint. Lexicus released the Longhand handwriting recognition system. Microsoft released Windows for Pen Computing. Between 1992 and 1994, a number of companies introduced hardware to run Windows for Pen Computing or PenPoint. Among them were EO, NCR, Samsung (the picture to the right is a 1992 Samsung PenMaster), Dauphin, Fujitsu, TelePad, Compaq, Toshiba, and IBM. Few people remember that the original IBM ThinkPad was, as the name implies, a slate computer.

The computer press was first enthusiastic, then very critical when pen computers did not sell. They measured pen computers against desktop PCs with Windows software and most of them found pen tablets difficult to use. They also criticized handwriting recognition and said it did not work. After that, pen computer companies failed. Momenta closed in 1992. They had used up US$40 million in venture capital. Samsung and NCR did not introduce new products. Pen pioneer GRiD was bought by AST for its manufacturing capacity. AST stopped all pen projects. Dauphin, which was started by a Korean businessman named Alan Yong, went bankrupt, owing IBM over $40 million. GO was taken over by AT&T, and AT&T closed the company in August 1994 (after the memorable "fax on the beach" TV commercials). GO had lost almost US$70 million in venture capital. Compaq, IBM, NEC, and Toshiba all stopped making consumer market pen products in 1994 and 1995.

By 1995, pen computing was dead in the consumer market. Microsoft made a half-hearted attempt at including "Pen Services" in Windows 95, but slate computers had gone away, at least in consumer markets. It lived on in vertical and industrial markets. Companies such as Fujitsu Personal Systems, Husky, Telxon, Microslate, Intermec, Symbol Technologies, Xplore, and WalkAbout made and sold many pen tablets and pen slates.

That was, however, not the end of pen computing. Bill Gates had always been a believer in the technology, and you can see slate computers in many of Microsoft's various "computing in the future" presentations over the years. Once Microsoft reintroduced pen computers as the "Tablet PC" in 2002, slates and notebook convertibles made a comeback, and new companies such as Motion Computing joined the core of vertical and industrial market slate computers specialists.

So now tablets, or slates as Ballmer called them in his CES speech, are once again a "much-hyped category of electronics." The difference is that this time, thanks to Apple and the iPhone, tablets are to have multi-touch.

Let's hope all this works. Technology has come a very long way since those early days of tablet computers, but hype is never good if it's based on a flood of me-too products of a concept that has yet to prove it can work.

For an illustrated history of tablets and slates, see excerpts of "The Past and Future of Pen Computing" by editor Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, presented as a keynote address at the Taipei International Convention Center in December of 2001.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:37 PM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2010

Getac now offers 5-year warranties!

Sometimes the most amazing news is not a product announcement. That's what I thought when I saw Getac's press release about offering 5-year "bumper-to-bumper" warranties for all their rugged notebook computers. That's a long time.

According to Getac, the new warranty covers all of their fully rugged computers (i.e. the A790, B300, E100, M230 and V100 models) delivered on or after January first of this year. And the warranty includes "damage that occurs due to accidental acts and exposure to environmental conditions". According to Getac president Jim Rimay, they did that because in these tough economic times, computers are more likely replaced on a 5-year cycle instead of the 3-year upgrading cycle of more prosperous times. By offering a full 5-year warranty, customers will not incur additional service/warranty fees if they keep their equipment longer. The 5-year warranty is also a welcome change, the press release says, to governments and other large entities where getting approval for equipment repair can be a lengthy and involved process (it can, I've been there).

Five years is a long time, and especially so for a product that is designed to be used outdoors and under demanding environmental conditions where it is much more likely that computers are dropped, bumped around, rained on, and just generally experience conditions far from those in a nice, warm, clean office. It'd be interesting to know the actual mechanics of the warranty, what all is included, if certain items are excluded, what the turn-around is, shipment costs and so on. I am sure Getac thought this through, and we'll put in an inquiry to the folks at Getac.

How important are warranties and service in this field? Extremely so. I've personally visited the service and repair facilities of the leaders in the rugged computer market and came away more than impressed. Unlike in the commercial market where service is often hit-or-miss, with rugged systems failure rates, failure statistics and service turn-around times are meticulously recorded and managed. That's because with rugged systems, total cost of ownership matters and a good reputation for service and a good warranty definitely represent a strategic advantage.

Getac is on to something here, and offering a 5-year warranty definitely offers significant value-added to their products.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:18 PM | Comments (0)