Roughly a year since Microsoft rolled out its Windows XP Tablet PC edition, builders are finally starting to test business applications on Tablet PCs, and vendors have released Tablet PC applications designed for builders.

Tablet PCs are a cross between a laptop and a handheld computer. With Tablet PCs, builders can access all their standard office applications via keyboard or treat the device more like pen and paper by using a stylus to handwrite notes directly on screen and e-mail them to customers, suppliers, and field workers. Tablet PCs can be purchased for about $2,000 at BestBuy or CompUSA stores. Leading vendors include Acer, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, and ViewSonic.

One builder that's taking a close look at the Tablet PC is Palmetto Traditional Homes in Columbia, S.C. William Robinson, a partner at Palmetto, says the company wants to run its scheduling, punch list, and Web-based sales applications on Tablet PCs, along with e-mail and office applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel. Robinson says if initial tests with Tablet PCs go well, Palmetto will deploy the devices to about 50 superintendents in eight cities.

Robinson says Palmetto deployed iPAQ Pocket PCs about a year ago, but the rollout was unsuccessful. He says the supers complained about the short battery life and small screens on the handhelds, and most didn't want to use a stylus to enter information or take the time to run "hot sync" sessions that transfer handheld data to their desktop PCs. On top of all these complaints, the supers found wireless coverage on the handhelds lacking, particularly in remote areas or when supers walked under the roof of a house under construction.

Palmetto is on the cutting edge looking to use the Tablet PCs to run its standard business systems, but in the months ahead builders also will find that vendors will be releasing applications developed specifically for Tablet PCs.

At least two new Tablet PC applications for builders have emerged from vendors in the past few months. The first is Design Center, a software program from Trelligence that lets builders work with customers to make options selection on a Tablet PC. The software starts at $5,000. The second is Alias SketchBook Pro, a design application for the Tablet PC from software manufacturer Alias Wavefront that lets builders make sketches in the field, annotate photographs and CAD drawings, and e-mail them to customers, suppliers, and field workers. List price is $199; $179 on a download.

Gene Giles, COO of Trelligence, says the company developed the options selection application as a supplement to a physical design center. He says since the options selection process is paper intensive and requires a lot of walking around, it was a natural for the Tablet PC, which is mobile and has a large enough screen for salespeople to write notes on.

Giles says Design Center integrates with Trelligence's Affinity design development application. Now, builders can enter a customer's options and selections on a Tablet PC and send out work orders and change orders to their subs and supers with the Affinity layouts attached in applied functional knowledge (AFK) files.