Tablet computing is a very small pond, and it's now home to a very big fish: Dell.
The Round Rock, Texas-based PC maker on Tuesday is introducing the Latitude XT Tablet PC, its first product in the category.
Though it's just one notebook, Dell's entry is sure to cause a stir. It's a modest niche of computing that hasn't really gotten off the ground yet. And the interest of the second-largest PC maker in the world can't help but have an impact on the market.
"It puts the product in limelight," said Richard Shim, PC industry analyst with IDC. "It has potential to bring down pricing on key components that are being priced at a premium."
Currently tablet PCs comprise just 2.4 percent of the worldwide notebook market, according to IDC. That's about 2.5 million units shipped total. But as Dell joins other high-profile tablet makers like Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, Gateway, and others, the category is expected to grow to 12.3 million units and 6.3 percent of the notebook market by 2011, IDC said. And as volumes go up, prices are sure to go down.
That Dell would delve into tablets was one of the worst-kept secrets in the PC industry over the last year. The company confirmed the rumors in May and then briefly showed the product during Michael Dell's keynote speech at Oracle Open World in November.
The Latitude XT is aimed chiefly at commercial markets, and Dell says it initially tried to address several of the key complaints expressed by typical tablet users: that they're too bulky, the screen isn't viewable in direct sun, poor handwriting recognition, and inadequate battery life.
Although tablets in general are not marketed toward consumers right now, Dell's entrance could bring component prices down enough to make building and buying tablets affordable for, say, students one day, noted Shim. "Lately we've been seeing manufacturers start to look at the consumer market as an audience for this type of tablet," he said. Particularly because the profit margins are much higher for consumer devices.
For now, the price is not what you would call friendly to the mainstream notebook buyer. At the starting price of $2,499, the Latitude XT has a 12.1-inch LED-backlit screen, a 1.06-gigahertz Intel Core 2 Solo processor, 1GB of memory, and a 40GB hard drive. It comes with Windows Vista Business edition or XP Tablet Edition. The whole device weighs 3.57 pounds, and has about 5 hours of battery life. It uses capacitive touch input, which recognizes both fingers and an included pen for inputting data. The pen also comes with a right-click button.
To target outdoor, all-day commercial users, the Latitude XT comes with upgrade options of an extra bright outdoor-viewable LCD display (which adds to the thickness of the notebook), an extended battery, which clips on the bottom of the device, as well as the option of an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a 32 or 64 GB solid-state drive.
Dell calls its capacitive touch technology, which picks up on the electrical current in a person's hand, the "breakthrough" in the device. It also recognizes the difference between the touch of an errant palm or a purposeful press of a fingertip on the screen.
Touchscreen interfaces are a technology area with huge potential, and mainstream interest in multitouch technology skyrocketed this year with Apple's iPhone and Microsoft's demonstrations of its Surface PC technology. Dell has its cooking up its own multitouch technology, which it showed at Oracle Open World, in which all five fingers can be picked up by screen sensors. That won't be available until at least next year, said Glenn Keels, director of Dell's commercial product group.
The biggest delay is the availability of software applications that take advantage of touchscreen technologies. And it's not just Dell, but all makers of tablets. "The (manufacturers) making progress are the ones getting closer to customers, like Motion Computing," Shim said. Dell, HP, Toshiba, and Gateway "have to come up with applications that are a little more mainstream or mass market. The hard part is they're not used to thinking that way, in terms of applications, as (tablet computing) is less and less about speeds and feeds, and more about the experience."
Dell says it will begin to take orders and ship the Latitude XT by the end of the year.