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BW Businessworld

A Tablet For All Reasons

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General Electric is one of the most diverse technology companies in the world. But it is far removed from the tumultuous world of personal technology. Yet, some executives at GE Healthcare recently took a fancy to the Apple iPad. Not merely for their own use, but as a device to display medical images for doctors. GE Healthcare, like all its peers, has been on a rapid digitisation path, and now going mobile as well. "Doctors have been asking us for a technology that can let them view X-ray and MRI images by the patient's bedside," says Clarence Wu, general manager of IT at GE Healthcare Asia.

Smartphone screens are too small to view images. So GE is now developing a digital image management system for tablet devices such as iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Using it, a doctor can view high quality images at the point of care, increasing utility of GE's imaging equipment. "Images on a tablet cannot be used for interpretation, but are useful for review by the bedside," says Ajay Agarwal, radiologist and director of Diwan Chand Integral Health Services in Delhi. So, while it improves medical care, software products like this would also create a new market for the tablet, which has suddenly caught the fancy of developers around the world. It made its debut only last year with the iPad, but is quickly cutting a wide swathe across several industries. It is set to change our lives as well.

Consider the sheer speed the market is growing at. Last year, just over 10 million tablets were sold around the world; most of them iPads. Market research firm IDC expects 42 million tablets to be sold this year, which would be far more than the number of netbooks to be sold this year (37 million). Gartner is even more sanguine, and expects 54 million tablets to be sold this year. Forrester Research says that 24 million tablets will be sold in the US alone this year. By 2015, the cumulative sales in the US would be 195 million. "It would put tablets on a par with laptops in terms of sales," says Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps.

These numbers would be enough to create a stir in the PC and smartphone industries that the tablets straddle. IDC says non-PC devices such as smartphones, tablets and others together would start outselling PCs in 18 months, ending the two-decade-old PC era. Not because the PC universe will die, but because the alternative universe gets bigger and more exciting. Says Bob O'Donnell, IDC vice-president for clients and displays: "Tablets will make people delay buying PCs. But in the long term, it is a supplementary rather than a replacement device."

A tablet is quite unlike a PC. Consumers approach the device the way they do a smartphone or an MP3 player, according to Forrester. Forrester had also found the tablet consumer is very tech-savvy and owns multiple devices. Market research firms also expect early tablet adapters to be early users of cloud services. All these would fuel the tablet market, but there is a critical difference between the tablet and the PC. It is driven by new applications, even more than the smartphone.

As more tablets are launched around the world, the device is being used in ways that a PC would never be. The PC was an all-purpose device for computing. While the tablet can occasionally act as a surrogate PC, it is increasingly being used as a different device for things that the PC cannot do. For more than a decade, the Internet was at the centre of the PC as a device. With the tablet, the attention is shifting, for the first time in a decade, from the Internet to applications. The tablet will not be bought in large numbers for Web surfing, although it will be used for this purpose as well. Its utility will lie in specific designs and applications that manufacturers and developers can imagine and develop. Some of these designs and applications are set to change entire industries.
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The Textbook Approach
Babur Habib and Osman Rashid had been friends since age nine. Habib holds a doctorate in semiconductor physics from Princeton University, US, and had designed embedded processors at Philips and Intel. Rashid is a serial entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley, who had started email management firm eBot, customer management firm Chordiant, and the textbook rental company Chegg. They got together in 2009 to design a tablet-like device for students.

"Students go back and forth while reading a textbook," says Habib. "They also bookmark and annotate." They like large page sizes. They take notes while reading. Needless to say, they carry multiple textbooks in their bag. Habid and Rashid wanted to provide students with one device to replace all of them, and none existed. Their device, Kno, is now available in the US for under $849. It has two 14-inch screens that open like a book. Students can use it for reading, writing, browsing, researching, etc. Several e-textbooks are already available for Kno.

Kno will sell first to the 1.4 million students in the US and then in the global market. It is not the only tablet-like device built specifically for a category of customers. A month and a half ago, bookseller Barnes & Noble launched Nook Color, a hybrid e-Ink-LCD device for reading and video. At $249 a piece, Nook Color is cheap and blurs the boundaries between tablets and e-readers. Cisco, a networking company with big ambitions in video, is set for the commercial launch of Cius, a tablet optimised for video conferencing in enterprises. Both Research in Motion and HP have launched their own versions of business tablets.

As predicted, the Consumer Electronics Show at Los Angeles last week saw a flurry of tablet launches, many of them from non-PC firms. They include all possible permutations and combinations of tablet features and applications. Texas-based Motion Inc. has launched a ruggedised tablet for construction, retail and healthcare. Lenovo launched a tablet that can work on both Windows and Android. Both Google and Microsoft showed new versions of Windows and Android for tablets.

Television companies Panasonic and Vizio are launching tablets that would connect seamlessly with their TVs. It will be a few months before these tablets hit markets, and even more time before they reach India. But some of these more specialised or expensive tablets may not reach us for some time. "India is still a price-sensitive market," says Amar Babu, managing director of Lenovo India. The only tablets available here are Samsung Galaxy Tab and Dell Streak. iPad is slated to be launched in a few weeks.

But some tablets are expected to be launched in India not too long after the worldwide launch. Cisco's Cius is one. It offers a way of staying connected on video when a person is travelling. It comes with all the paraphernalia required for video conferencing: a high-definition screen, interoperability with telepresence and video conferencing, docking stations, etc. Cisco plans a commercial launch sometime this quarter, including in India.

Just two years ago, netbooks seemed to threaten business models of some IT firms. Now, it has stepped back a bit. "The netbook has not caught on as expected as it lacked the horsepower," says Mahesh Bhalla, general manager of Dell India. The tablet is a far more disruptive product as it is not just a stripped down PC. It is a new way of working and playing.

hari(dot)pulakkat(at)abp(dot)in

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 24-01-2011)