Thanks to falling prices, increased selection, and many more applications targeted at small and mid-sized businesses, it might seem like the right time to consider picking up a tablet PC -- or several for your staff.

For the uninitiated, these small and lightweight handheld computers let you comfortably write on the screen using a stylus pen. Bundled optical character recognition (OCR) software can also transcribe your chicken scratch into text, making it easy to search or insert into documents, presentations, or e-mails. With built-in wireless functionality, such as 802.11 (Wi-Fi), tablet PCs are also online-ready.

Microsoft has an entire operating system devoted to these computers -- Windows XP Tablet PC. The software giant has also spent considerable marketing dollars to promote OneNote, a tablet PC-centric note-taking and information-management program for Microsoft Office. OneNote allows you to effortlessly record, organize, search, and share digital notes.

Computer makers offering more tablet PCs

Many laptops available today also offer tablet PC functionality. Aptly named “convertibles,” these computers feature LCD screens that can swivel around and lay flat -- so the user can hold it like a clipboard and write instead of type.

It’s no wonder many computer manufacturers have jumped onboard, including the likes of Acer, HP, Lenovo, Dell, Gateway, Toshiba, and Fujitsu. It might seem as if the tablet computer was the latest rage. But, truth be told, the tablet PCs are hardly flying off the shelves.

So, why aren’t they selling? According to a recent IDC report, the market is relatively tiny. Convertible tablet PC shipments, for example, will reach barely one million units this year and more than four million by 2010, IDC estimates. Compare this to approximately 72.6 million laptop PCs sold during the same period.

“Tablets are still a pretty niche market and I don't see that changing anytime soon,” says Gary Chen, senior analyst for Small and Medium Enterprise IT Infrastructure and Applications at the Yankee Group. “They’re good for certain vertical applications, but for the mainstream I don't see it ever becoming the primary form factor.”

Determine whether you need tablet functionality

Other analysts are more optimistic about the tablet PC's potential in the small and mid-sized business market. Michael Gartenberg, Jupiter Research’s vice president and research director, says that businesses need to assess whether they can utilize the additional mobility and functionality that the tablet PC has to offer. “The technology has matured -- in both the hardware and software -- but the big question is ‘do you need it?’” Gartenberg says.

For many businesses, the answer may be, "Yes." Gartenberg suggests that IT decision makers at small and mid-sized businesses consider whether staff members in their business have certain requirements that may be appropriate for tablet PC usage. Tablet computers can provide benefits when used in the following scenarios:

  • When employees are in meetings and want to use their computer as a white board to best demonstrate a product or concept by using a diagram or pictorial representation.
  • In mobile environments, such as health care, where workers need to record information while standing or in other situations where a keyboard isn't appropriate.
  • In businesses that can cut out a data entry step by enabling field workers to use a stylus to take notes or record observations, which can then be ported into a text file with a few clicks.

Another selling point of the tablet PC is that there is no longer a considerable difference in quality between tablets and other laptops. “A few years ago, there was a clear sacrifice in quality of screen, battery life, and power," Gartenberg says. "But now you’re not trading any functionality.”

Chen concedes the price for tablet PCs isn’t much of a barrier of entry any longer for a small or mid-sized business. “Cost was initially a big factor," he says, "and they've definitely come down in price.”

That said, Chen maintains most users are “pretty happy with a standard laptop and don't really see a need to be able to write on the screen.” “I just haven't seen large demand from users for tablet PCs,” he adds.

Time will tell whether the additional development of tablet PC technology by computer and software makers gives businesses a reason to switch to the tablet computer.