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Tablet PCs, clean bits and metadata: Emerging technologies to watch

Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer
Are tablet PCs ready for their big entrance? Adopted slowly by the mainstream market, tablet PCs are expensive, clumsy and maybe too fragile for the rough and tumble of everyday computing. But according to Gartner Inc., their big day is just

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around the corner.

After test-driving the Fujitsu Siemens Lifebook T 4010 PC tablet recently, Gartner analyst Alexander Linden said he was surprised at "how significantly" handwriting recognition has improved: "Even with bad handwriting, the system often recognizes words correctly at first glance [for this author, it was about 70% of the time]."

Linden, whose analysis was part of a Gartner report highlighting emerging technologies, was even more enamored by the tablet PC's svelte shape and good manners. In many corporate cultures, "it seems far less impolite to jot notes into a tablet PC than to type notes while hiding partly behind the screen of a notebook PC," he said. No bigger than a sheaf of papers or a book, the tablet PC "fits much better into social environments," he said. "We speculate that this feature will become a major adoption driver for certain customer-facing situations."

Tell that to Tom Fluker, vice president of information systems at Cornell Companies Inc. He's had his eye on tablet PCs since their inception in 2002. "There's a phenomenal opportunity for tablets here, but we can't afford it," said Fluker, who oversees an IT department of 36 and will spend $9.5 million on IT next year.

Based in Houston, the $291 million Cornell builds and operates adult and juvenile correctional facilities nationwide. The company has many mobile workers, who meet with clients off-site. Even on the premises, a laptop is not the ideal tool during counseling sessions. "I've been told many, many times that it is too cold," Fluker said. "When you're trying to get a kid or family to open up, it's about eye contact, not sitting behind a screen."

Most employees still take notes by hand and type them into a computer at the end of a shift. But details are lost in the process, the staff said. The practice also means that workstations remain idle for hours -- and then a line forms, Fluker said. Even a handful of tablet PCs per facility would help, Fluker said, but he's not going to make the case to his bosses ("They're still perceived as gadgets") until prices come down, especially given the equipment's lifespan. "They're still not rugged enough."

Price is an issue, but it's less so than a few years ago, said Leslie Fiering, a research vice president at Gartner who has followed tablet PCs closely since their introduction. The premium on the tablet PC has come down from $300 to $100. "But for a large organization that needs 5,000 notebooks, that's $500,000. That price needs to drop more," she said. The biggest cost item is the digitizer that allows the pen signal to be recognized, but new technology in the works should lower that price, she said.

"Our feeling all along is that adoption is moving as expected, slow but steady, with year-over-year growth. By 2007, we think we'll see more demand from students. The large accounts will take longer."

Still, Fiering said the tablet is here to stay. Some of the other, well-documented complaints about tablet PCs have been addressed, she said. With Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system coming out at the end of next year, tablet PCs will be part of the operating system, rather than extensions of the OS, Fiering said. There is a broader range of applications, so "when you pick up your pen, something actually happens." And the ergonomics are slowly getting there. "We need to have great notebooks that are tablets, as opposed to tablets that are crappy notebooks. We're just starting to see them," she said, singling out the Lenovo ThinkPad X41 tablet PC as an example.

Right now, adopters are mostly vertical -- that is, people with a particular need. "We're seeing engineering students using them to write formulas, insurance salesmen or caseworkers who need to maintain eye contact while taking notes," Fiering said. "These people are getting a return on investment. For them, it is a mature technology."

Three other emerging technologies

MetaCarta's metadata

MetaCarta, a search engine for geographic locations, touts itself as the largest gazetteer of its kind, with 7.5 million place names. The company uses "natural-language concept extraction," or context, to distinguish Buffalo, N.Y., for example, from buffalo, and it uses latitude and longitude to distinguish Manchester, N.H., for example, from Manchester, England. The system can learn new location information for itself, unlike Google, Yahoo and others, Gartner said, and pull information from free text without exact keyword matches. The heads up? "MetaCarta's technology is important in its own right because it provides users with a flexible way to index and search free text documents for geographic information. It also supports the broader trend of the growing importance of metadata in the future of IT."

In-the-cloud security: Clean bits

The traditional approach to security has been to put the security hardware and software on the PC of the consumer or at the edge of the business. Gartner said this is akin to "the water company telling you to put purifiers onto the water pipe into your house because it is sending you many poisonous substances mixed into your water." The next frontier? Telecom carriers and Internet service providers will be the wolf at your door. "AT&T already provides a range of network-based security services. Smaller startups like VigilantMinds, Prolexic Technologies and Perimeter Internetworking insert themselves into the cloud much the way antispam filtering services insert themselves into the e-mail flow."

Social tagging

Also known as "folksonomies," from folks and taxonomies, social tagging obtains user-created metadata from social websites. The advantages? Gartner gives two: "If a large enough number of users is assembled, social tagging leads to statistical indexing, which reflects much better what a community of users thinks is appropriate meta data for certain content. "Meta data creation also leads to much better coverage of special cases -- so-called long-tail coverage (the "long tail" of a frequency distribution refers to low-frequency cases that could still constitute a large fraction of the entire collection of cases)." Gartner recommends you check out the Del.icio.us, Flickr and Furl websites.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer


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