Lenovo's table PC in the office: pros and cons

Credit: PC World

One of the biggest showstoppers at CES last week was Lenovo's Horizon -- a 27" all-in-one Windows 8 table PC designed to be used by multiple people at once. The table PC concept isn't new. Microsoft brought a table PC solution to market with OEM partners in 2007, the same year that Apple launched the iPhone. That solution, now known as PixelSense and previously known as Microsoft Surface (no relation to the company's current tablets), was targeted at the retail and hospitality markets and gained little attention -- and virtually no traction -- in the broader enterprise space or in the consumer market.

By contrast, most of the news about the Horizon focused on ways that families will be able to use it at home. In fact, most of the demos of the Horizon show it being used for multi-player games including board games like Monopoly and arcade-era classics like air hockey and Gauntlet.

Although gaming and family entertainment is one clear use of the Horizon, it might find its way into the workplace as well. In an interview with Computerworld's Sharon Gaudin, Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead even predicted that devices like the Horizon will become office mainstays.

"This form factor will be part of the office of the future," According to Moorhead. "Collaborating on one display will add richness and depth to discussions and make a meeting more of a participation activity versus a passive one."

That's a pretty bold statement, but is it really all that far-fetched? ?In the years since Microsoft initially released its table PC concept into the market, touchscreen devices of various sizes and shapes have become integral parts of our daily lives, ranging in size from the postage stamp sized iPod nano that Apple introduced a couple of years ago up to CNN's giant touchscreen wall that debuted during the 2008 presidential campaign.

In organizations of all sizes and types, iPads and other tablets have become routine sights at meetings and presentations, being used to take notes and deliver presentations to a projector or other type of display. More noteworthy when talking about the Horizon, however, is that the devices are often passed around a conference table (as illustrated in this iPad case study from Apple) so that various folks can review, edit, and comment on content . One could easily imagine dropping the Horizon, or another table PC, in the middle of the table and letting people view that content communally. With everyone reading/reviewing and commenting all at once, modifications to a blueprint, advertising campaign, or video, the process might go much more smoothly -- and without generating layer after layer of comments and edits.

On the other hand, there is that old adage about too many cooks spoiling the meal. With several people attempting to comment, highlight items, or make changes at once, a meeting -- and even documents or projects on the screen -- could become a audible and digital cacophony. In such a situation, the Horizon might end up impeding productivity, input, and collaboration rather than aiding it.

There's also the question about how well a table PC would scale in a meeting. Most of the demos and reviews of the Horizon at CES focused on two to four people. While countless small meetings of that size take place every day around the world every day, they aren't often the kind that require a conference room or an interactive element beyond a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. The meetings that often gain from presentation and interactive collaboration technologies are typically at least a little bit larger. How well a table PC works with six users -- or eight or ten or more -- is a much broader question, though in such meetings it's quite possible that not every participant will need to actively use the device.

With video and remote presentation technologies like WebEx representing an ever growing presence in business today, there's also the question of how remote participants might interact during a meeting centered around a table PC. Would they be able to see who was making changes or indicating content or just see a screencast of the display? Could they remotely take control of the device? Would there be a realistically usable camera angle for such a meeting where people are leaning forward and/or bending over a table? Angles from one end of the room, the typical placement of video conference solutions, or from the table PC itself probably wouldn't work well at all.

Speaking of people leaning over a table, there's also the question of how ergonomic the Horizon will be -- either in the home or at the office. Most technologies, and work spaces, have the potential to create repetitive stress injury (RSI). Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most well-known form of RSI, but it is only one of many. RSI problems are often complex because they involve damage to several different areas of the body. Neck, shoulder, back, and arm issues are also common and are often seating and posture related. RSI isn't limited to just traditional computer user, however. Health officials in Britain began warning about smartphone and tablet RSI over a year ago. Frequent and/or prolonged table PC use could encourage even more postures and movements that are not natural to the human body.That could mean direct injury or aggravation of existing injuries or strains -- whether repetitive stress related or not.

The table-based multi-user Aura interface of the Horizon might also require new or redesigned apps, even though it runs the standard version of Windows 8. Lenovo has said it will have over 3,000 apps ready when the Horizon ships this summer, though it's unclear what the mix of apps will be. It's quite possible that only a handful of them will be useful for business environments.

Finally, there's the cost. Starting at $999, the Horizon costs more than traditional PCs, current tablets, and some conference room staples like a projector or HDTV. But as a corporate purchase, it's not very expensive.  Presuming the devices are destined for conference rooms -- at least initially -- outfitting an office or building wouldn't require a big outlay. 

Ironically, the Horizon could become a BYOD option. Although it's a far cry from an ultrabook in terms of size and shape, it is somewhat portable and can even function on battery power for a couple of hours (according to Lenovo). You could lug one to your desk if you chose -- or to a meeting with clients or partners.

Perhaps the biggest factor is how much effort manufacturers like Lenovo and third-party developers put behind the Horizon for use beyond the family room, and whether anybody -- businesses or consumers -- show real demand for them.

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