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Keep taking the tablets

Despite the lack of enthusiasm in the UK, Skidmore Owings and Merrill has embraced the tablet computer in the US

One or two practices in the UK have recently tried out tablet computers and have either sent them back or not found them really useful. Funny that. It is true that for sceptics the tablet computer is commonly thought of as a heavy digital clipboard with added handwriting recognition - it is probably the main reason, apart from the high cost (according to manufacturers, the high cost of the built-in Microsoft software), why European tablet sales have been more than disappointing.

Tablets are portable and, you might think, are meant to be used on the move. But that does not mean, any more than it does for laptops, that they are not eminently suitable for using on a desk. So, looked at another way, the tablet computer is also a sketchpad that operates in the same way as that very nifty Wacom Cintique tablet that lets you draw directly on the screen, giving the impression that the line is actually coming out of the end of your pressure-sensitive stylus. Just like paper and pencil. But the average tablet computer costs a lot less than the Wacom Cintique - and has a computer built-in.

Things are not quite the same in the US. Skidmore Owings and Merrill's (SOM) Henry King, who, among other things, heads up the partnership's information-technology group, says that a number of SOM people now use Autodesk's application, Architectural Studio, on Compaq Tablet TC1000 PCs for early design-stage work.

King says: 'I introduced the tablet PC here in Chicago because I was already familiar with the technology and thought it might provide the architects with a much more intuitive platform. I was introduced to Hewlett Packard by Autodesk and was asked to be part of the pre-launch trial. So we are one of the Hewlett Packard dot. com PC customer success stories. I wanted to introduce that kind of technology because writing directly on the screen is closer to the paper and pen analogy and we have had some good successes with it.'

Of the first-generation HP tablets, he says frankly: 'We have our problems with speed and responsiveness.

And there are limitations with [the relatively small 10.4-inch TFT] screen size. But it's very valuable in some circumstances. We have technical architects on site and they can print drawings and checklists - and can mark up the material on site. And they have really found it to be beneficial.'

Despite the line-out-of-theend-of-the-stylus virtues of tablet computers and the apparent connection with sketching, King says: 'We don't have as many people doing early stage design as I had anticipated. But we now have some senior designers, especially in New York, who have moved over to tablets. One of them has a long commute to work and is able to be totally productive on the train - and can thus slice half an hour off his office day.'

HP has just brought out a new version of the Compaq, the TC1100, which is expected to be a tad faster.

It has graphics based on NVIDIA Geforce 4 Go 420 rather than GeForce 2 Go100, and half the memory. King will be buying TC1100s and loading them with Architectural Studio. He says: 'We will continue to use tablets, but we are not pushing them unless people really like the idea.'

SOM generally uses PCs in a combination of workstations and laptops with the occasional PDA, the latter for pre-occupancy and post-occupancy surveys - and satisfaction surveys.

King says that SOM uses them because they enable survey people to ask questions in an unobtrusive way and download the information to a database back at the office.

But tablets are not exactly unobtrusive. King agrees that there are other factors at work in the adoption of tablets, such as the general buzz of early adoption and keeping up with the Joneses. He says: 'Sure, they are scarce and have a wow factor and clients have been impressed - to the point that one of them asked us to prepare a proposal for a plan for their sales force using tablets. So there is a market out there for them, even if it is not strictly architectural.'

And what of the lack of enthusiasm on this side of the Atlantic? Expat King says that people in the London office are using tablets but, carefully, as 'it's the nature of the Brits to be a little more sceptical'.

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