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IDC: Tablet PCs off to solid start

The researcher says more than 72,000 pen-operated computers were shipped last year, a number that is expected grow and that heralds the device as a player in the mobile arena.

Shipments of tablet PCs topped 72,000 units in the fourth quarter of last year, and will "grow considerably" this year, research firm IDC said Friday.

Tablet PCs--tiny portable computers fitted with pens, touch screens and handwriting-recognition technology--first became available last November and are based on Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition software.

"With only six weeks of potential shipments to record...and the form factor's relative infancy in the face of other competing, more established devices, IDC believes that initial shipment volume represents a good start at securing a role in the crowded mobile device arena," IDC said in a report.

The report comes as tablet PC manufacturers have been witnessing strong demand for the product. Top vendors Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba have said sales of their tablet PCs are exceeding predictions made before the devices' November launch.

Tablet PCs are still a fairly small segment of the overall notebook market. But the devices have so far been a bright spot for manufacturers, which are still feeling the effects of the PC market crash of 2001. The smaller machines have generated interest among the legal, real estate and health care industries, as well as from some consumers, executives from Toshiba and HP said.

IDC said HP's tablet PC shipments beat those of Fujitsu, which has more than 10 years of experience making a similar portable device. HP shipped more than 17,000 units worldwide last year, IDC said.

Significant adoption of tablet PCs by corporations "is still six to 12 months away," IDC said, "as IT departments continue to put tablets through rigorous testing processes prior to deployment."

Still, IDC expects solid growth this year, "driven by increased marketing efforts from OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and Microsoft, a steady refining of product lines, and the development of new usage models that are attractive to a greater cross section of potential users."

The United States was the biggest market for tablet PC shipments, accounting for about half the total volume, IDC found. But Western Europe, Japan and the Asia-Pacific region also have strong potential for the product, said IDC analyst Alan Promisel. In Asia, that's partly because of the way tablet PCs make it easier to enter Asian language into a computer, he suggested. "Handwriting is a quicker input method than the keyboard for that region," Promisel said.