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Tablet PCs Are Touch and Go for Small Firms

A touch-screen computer can offer new ways to interact with customers, just hope it doesn't break.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Apple's (AAPL) soon-to-be-unveiled tablet computer might win over consumers, but the experience might be more touch and go for small businesses.

Investors and gadget junkies are waiting for Apple to debut a tablet computer later this week, reportedly called the iSlate. I don't know much about it, but I'm learning quite a bit about other touch-based computers, printers and mobile devices. Though Apple gets credit for triggering the touch-computing landslide with its iPhone and iPod, it won't be the first company to offer a computer controlled by the touch of a finger.

Touch-enabled PCs and printers from



, laptops from





, and smartphones from







have been popping up in stores in recent months. While many of these units show promise for small enterprises, they can also be risky investments.

Here's what you need to know before you buy a tablet for your firm:

What you get:

Without question, touch-based PCs offer nifty ways to interact with your clients.

Take the H-P TouchSmart line of notebooks and desktops. The black and silver items we tested were elegant, easy to set up and softened the line between a simple PC and a public kiosk. I could easily imagine one of these black-and-silver computers in a bakery or doctor's office, where customers could type in their data, enter sweepstakes, get coupons or answer questions without the clunky keyboard.

And they're cheap compared with purpose-built business devices, such as Restaurant Pro Express. Touch either one of these units, and you see touch is a great small business idea.

What you don't get:

Touch-screen computers are not easy to fix.

A touch-enabled computer relies on complex software to enable users to manipulate data with gestures. And there's the rub: When digital things go south, what just broke? The touch screen or the software? The hard drive or screen itself? Was your finger greasy? Or was it something dumb, like forgetting you were wearing gloves that kept the device from sensing your hand?

Touch technology adds a variable that will make troubleshooting tougher: Take a H-P TouchSmart DX 9000 desktop we were testing. One day, it stopped loading virus software. No slam against H-P. Demonstration machines get pounded, especially all-in-one devices like these. But as we began our usual technology jujitsu to fix it, we found it difficult to reliably repeat configurations and systemically work through problems. Was it the touch technology? The keyboard? The software? And this logical uncertainty quickly rendered most traditional repair protocols useless.

There was little we could do, except put the thing back into the box and ship it back to H-P.

Bottom line:

Touch-enabled devices can introduce opportunities and headaches into your small business.

I expect the Apple tablet to be fabulous. Test it out and see what it can do in your shop. But tread carefully with any device before you put in front of customers.


Reported by Jonathan Blum in New York


Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.